We can’t trust the American Cancer Society’s judgement about alcohol

Back in January 2019, I described how the American Society of Clinical Oncologists (ASCO)—an organization that represents our nation’s cancer doctors—wanted us to ring in the New Year by adopting complete and total abstinence from all alcohol.

And now, another misguided, politically driven organization—the American Cancer Society (ACS)—has also come out against drinking alcohol, despite decades of science showing that enjoying it in moderation confers many health benefits.

The ACS’s new indictment is arguably more damaging than ACSO’s—as the ACS is a much more powerful organization and has a much bigger marketing budget to influence American behavior.

So, let’s take a closer look at all the new recommendations and other supposed “risk factors” for cancer…

“It is best not to drink alcohol”

Scientific research into cancer for the past half-century has enjoyed the most lavish federal funding imaginable compared to all other medical conditions worldwide.

Yet, despite this wealth of funding, the original 2019 ASCO report was based on some of the flimsiest science imaginable. In fact, it was written more like a political manifesto than a scientific summary. (Over the last 20 years, I’ve sadly witnessed how many  medical schools have also become quite proficient at promoting political agendas, taking a cue from their colleagues at undergraduate colleges, I suppose.)

Although it’s a part of the mainstream cancer industry, the ACS had generally charted its own course. It seemingly had heeded the current science that you can safely enjoy one to two drinks of alcohol per day without raising your cancer risk. Until now, that is.

In fact, in this latest report, the ACS performed a complete reversal…

It set aside the current science and now recommends, like ASCO, that you should completely abstain from alcohol. (Of course, I should have seen it coming.)

But what about the decades of science showing that moderate alcohol consumption actually benefits health…and even improves lifespan?

And what about all the compelling research regarding alcohol and heart health, specifically? Did both ASCO and now ACS forget to check with their crony, corporatist colleagues across the street at the American Heart Association (AHA) about their thoughts on alcohol consumption?

(The AHA misses the mark on other key points, but currently continues to recognize the decades of science showing that moderate alcohol consumption strongly benefits cardiovascular health. And remember, heart disease—not cancer—still remains the leading cause of morbidity and mortality nationally and worldwide.)

Indeed, the entire cancer industry continues to suffer from a dismal record of failure when it comes to actually preventing, screening, treating, and curing cancers. So, truly, I put no weight in the latest politically motivated “advice” dished out by these two organizations.

You can’t have it both ways, folks

Now, I must point out that, buried beneath the ACS’s misguided pronouncement on alcohol were a few pieces of good sense…

For example, I was pleased to see the ACS begin to slide away from a “reductionist” or “nutrient-centric” approach in favor of a more “holistic” approach to diet. Which means we should no longer single out and demonize specific foods.

Instead, they say we should seek to adopt a dietary pattern rich in whole foods and free from processed foods. This general approach is what I’ve always recommended, based on the current science.

But then, later in the report, they abandoned this “holistic” approach…and began to single out and vilify red meat. Which was especially frustrating, since the science shows that eating unprocessed red meat simply isn’t the culprit it’s made out to be. (And I don’t recommend avoiding meat, but including it in a sensible, balanced diet.)

Next, the report went on to cover physical activity guidelines…

Yet again, just enough “truth” to make it plausible

The ACS said adults should get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise per week. And this recommendation did contain some truth—as 150 minutes is the target you should aim to achieve for optimal health benefits.

But I have no idea where they came up with their upper limit of 300 minutes. Maybe they just multiplied by two, since they like bigger numbers? (I’ll tell  you more about this issue next time.)

They also veered away from the science with their comments about “high-intensity” exercise (or what I call “excess-ercise”). Remember, studies show excessive exercise can cause serious problems for your heart, joints, GI tract, kidneys, and genito-urinary system.

Well, it seems the ACS experts are willing to sacrifice the health of these vital systems in favor of a possibly, minutely lower cancer risk. (Or perhaps it’s just that excessive exercisers often drop dead and never survive long enough to get cancer—which in a backward way, helps the numbers! We call this kind of outcome a “competing risk.”)

Overall, while some of the ASC’s basic recommendations remain sound, the organization as a whole looks like it’s moving further away from a strictly scientific basis toward an overtly political one. And they reveal themselves when they state: “This is a call for action from public, private, and community organizations to work together…to develop and advocate for policy and environmental changes…”

Sounds like another politically correct stump speech, if you ask me. How can they expect anyone to take their stances on alcohol, exercise, or red meat seriously—when it so clearly lacks any real scientific foundation?

In the end, the ACS’s recommendations just miss the mark—plain and simple. Especially when you consider the dozens of strong studies over the past three decades that consistently show moderate drinking, especially as you get older, improves your mood, brain function, and even your lifespan!

So—go ahead and enjoy a glass or two of wine, beer, or spirits with dinner. And better yet, safely enjoy it with friends or family! Your mind and your body will benefit.

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“American Cancer Society guideline for diet and physical activity for cancer prevention.” CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 6/9/20. 70(4): 245-271. doi.org/10.3322/caac.21591