Alcohol Use Disorders (47) Do people understand the harms of alcohol? (12) Does alcohol have health benefits? (2)

13 February, 2024

Dear Richard Velleman,

Thank you for your valuable comments on the lack of consistency of messages on whether small quantities of alcohol may have health benefits.

You make a really vital point:

"The fundamental reason for the conflicting information is that the science is not yet clear (although both ‘sides’ in this debate argue that it IS clear)."

I would be very interested to unpack this observation.

It seems that when the evidence is unclear, there is a tendency to 'take sides'. Many of us look at the evidence (cursorily or in depth) and, with misplaced authority, we may say to our patients (or whoever) that "small quantities of alcohol have health benefits" or we may say "there are no health benefits of small quantities of alcohol". In either case, as you say, they may argue that the evidence is clear. The same patient is very likely to hear both statements (and many more besides) from different sources. No wonder they are confused.

Isn't this where the problem lies, at least in part? That we (whether we are health workers, journalists, health communicators) tend to adopt an inappropriate stance of certainty? Some of us appear unable or unwilling to accept that 'the science is not yet clear'.

The patient has a right to know that the science is not clear. Any taking of sides is disingenuous and potentially harmful.

What, if anything, can be done to address this issue?

HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of HIFA (Healthcare Information For All), a global health community that brings all stakeholders together around the shared goal of universal access to reliable healthcare information. HIFA has 20,000 members in 180 countries, interacting in four languages and representing all parts of the global evidence ecosystem. HIFA is administered by Global Healthcare Information Network, a UK-based nonprofit in official relations with the World Health Organization. Email: