How many cigarettes in a bottle of wine?

This was the headline of a recent article on the BBC website, and probably reported in many newspapers but pushed off the front page by the fiasco known as Brexit.  The article opened with the statement that, “Drinking one 750ml bottle of wine a week increases the risk of developing cancer over a lifetime by the equivalent of 10 cigarettes a week for women and five for men, a study says.” and then followed with, “The UK researchers said this was a good way of communicating the health risks of moderate drinking.”

This follow-up statement is not only nonsense, it’s dangerous nonsense.  The causes of cancer are many and varied.  It is scientifically proven that the chemicals in tobacco smoke are carcinogenic, capable of causing changes (mutations) to the DNA of our genes that can result in lung cancer and other forms of cancer.  Thus, the dangers of smoking cigarettes are well-known and cigarette smoking has been demonised, rightly so in my opinion.  Alcohol is also carcinogenic and can cause various forms of cancer such as breast, stomach and liver, but to link its ability to do this through a single risk comparison with that of smoking cigarettes is stupid.  Whether the DNA mutation occurs, or not, is influenced by many different lifestyle factors: the purity of the air we breathe, exposure to other forms of carcinogens such as UV light, the quantity and frequency of smoking tobacco products or consuming alcohol in its many commercial forms, age and gender, what we eat, whether we carry a mutated gene passed on by our parents, and so on.   There is simply no way that all these complex risk factors can be condensed into a single comparative risk measure.  If I could obtain reliable statistics, I probably could ‘prove’ that the risk of dying in a car crash is the same as the risk of dying in an aircraft crash if I drive n-thousand miles a year in my car.  But what would be the point of such a comparison?  Would it cause me to reduce my yearly mileage, or stop driving altogether?

Just about every adult human in the world consumes some sort of alcoholic drink occasionally, unless financial, health or religious reasons prohibit it.  We enjoy the taste, the effect, and it is part and parcel of our everyday socialisations.  To demonise by transference is irresponsible.  By all means, point out the risks associated with consuming alcoholic drinks but don’t do it by linking with another product that is already demonised.