How much is too much alcohol?

We often talk about the federal government as though it’s one monolithic unit: i.e. “the federal government says…” But in reality, there are lots of different federal agencies that can often make conflicting recommendations and statements.

Consider alcohol—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) dietary guidelines state: “The consumption of alcohol can have beneficial or harmful effects, depending on the amount consumed, age, and other characteristics of the person consuming the alcohol. Alcohol consumption may have beneficial effects when consumed in moderation.” The FDA recommends up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

By comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) takes a gloomier view of alcohol, focusing on how too much alcohol consumption is “dangerous” and that binge drinking—5 or more drinks on an occasion for men or 4 or more drinks on an occasion for women— “can lead to increased risk of health problems such as injuries, violence, liver diseases, and cancer.”

This week, New York Times columnist Mark Bittman criticized the CDC’s position, arguing:

The C.D.C. flatly says drinking too much is “dangerous,” which is pretty vague, and can “lead to heart disease, breast cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, sudden infant death syndrome, motor-vehicle crashes, and violence.”

Many of these dangerous effects are indirect and can be mitigated: If you don’t have sex or get into a car after drinking, you can’t possibly get pregnant or in a car accident. (One thing about drinking alcohol, though: It can cause bad judgment.) The more direct ones, like heart disease and breast cancer, have so many risk factors that drinking may perhaps be discounted, especially in moderation. And there’s evidence that drinking “the right amount” — which is less than “too much” — can be good for you. But that amount varies wildly from one individual to the next, and for most people the safest amount of alcohol is probably, rationally, zero. So it’s crazy to say, as people do, “I drink red wine because it’s better for you than white,” because mostly people drink to get buzzed, or drunk, because bad judgment is a release or fun or both.

Drinking excessively is clearly linked to health problems, but too much of the conversation about alcohol lumps problem drinking together with moderate drinking to promote an “alcohol is dangerous” narrative. In the future, we’ll take a look at the science surrounding alcohol with a new “Science on Tap” section to our blog. Stay tuned!