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New dietary guidelines on alcohol consumption undercut sound science

New dietary guidelines on alcohol consumption undercut sound science
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If you’re a man thinking about ordering that second beer or glass of wine with your pizza, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) recommends you reconsider. This group of nanny-state bureaucrats has suddenly decreed that the definition of what constitutes “moderate” alcohol consumption for both men and women should top out at one drink per day, a rather extreme conclusion.

If anyone is wondering why they should care about the pronouncements of an obscure advisory committee, the answer is that we all should, as the effects of this misguided policy recommendation could ripple out in many unpleasant and unexpected ways. Thankfully a diverse coalition of the sane and the informed is pushing back. 

The standoff was instigated by the DGAC’s once every five-year duty on behalf of the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services (HHS) to prepare dietary guidelines recommendations based on the most current scientific data. This year they cut their 2015 recommendation of what constitutes “moderate” daily alcohol consumption for men in half to one drink per day while leaving the recommendation for women unaltered. The problem is the preponderance of scientific evidence does not support this change, which is the standard required in the DGAC’s charter.

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Instead, the committee’s recommendation leans on only one of sixty available studies approved for review and on several unapproved academic papers that focus on the dangers of high alcohol intake (binge drinking). Studies that focus on heavy drinking are irrelevant to setting guidelines relating to low-intake, high-frequency consumption. In effect, the DGAC has abandoned its role of providing verifiable, scientifically based data. This recommendation is bad policy, clearly aimed at steering an outcome instead of providing health information. 

In response to this rogue approach, five U.S. senators and nearly 30 representatives sent a letter to secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services asking them to explain their process and the “lack of scientific evidence” behind their recommendation. Numerous other medical and health experts have weighed in, including five Harvard scientists (three of whom were past DGAC members) who called the recommendation “arbitrary,” and Christopher Snowden of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, who called the proposed change “stealth prohibition.”

Presenting such wanton and arbitrary guideline revisions would very likely confuse the public as well as the health and nutrition professionals on whom they rely. It would leave consumers less equipped to make informed choices regarding their health and preferred leisure activities and undermine their faith in the recommendations of federal agencies as a source of accurate and objective data on matters of health and nutrition.

Let us recall that regulatory agencies draw on a wide range of authorities in setting health and safety standards. Lawmakers or bureaucrats deliberating on other alcohol-related matters could easily look to this guideline and codify it into one or more binding regulations that would unwittingly cement a scientifically invalid health standard into law. The same may prove true for NGOs and professional organizations, such as medical associations, who may similarly rely on it for recommendations. 

The adoption of this recommendation would further exact a heavy cost on our economy and the businesses, directly and indirectly, involved in the alcoholic beverage industry. Millions of workers in the beer, wine and spirits industry would be at risk for harm by this proposal, and millions more workers whose livelihood is indirectly connected to alcoholic beverages would feel the pressure of this arbitrary and onerous government standard. Distillers, brewers, winegrowers and the millions of people who work in packaging, delivery, retail, wholesale, restaurants, hospitality, sporting events and numerous other economic activities where alcohol is available would also be adversely impacted. 

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America’s agricultural industry would also feel the sting. Farmers who grow the commodities for brewers, winegrowers and distillers would see a decline in demand. Many ranchers who depend on the spent grains from alcohol production to feed their livestock would find their supply chain disrupted. Less tax revenue for states and localities already hurting due to the COVID-related economic downturn would be yet another negative consequence.

The bipartisan coalition of more than 30 congressional lawmakers is right to push back against this attempt to influence America's dietary guidelines through the abandonment of any scientific standards. The DGAC recommendation to our federal agencies is unwarranted, unfounded and potentially harmful. It undermines the freedom of choice for American consumers who choose to drink responsibly and mindfully. When it comes to bad policymaking, Washington should know when to say “when” and reject this bureaucratic misfire.     

Gerard Scimeca is an attorney and co-founder of CASE, Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.