A shot to keep the doctor at bay Alcohol: A study on the medical benefits of taking one drink a day leads to sobering questions of self-control.

December 28, 1997|By Harry Rosenfeld

It was widely deemed good news that yet another medical study, this one more comprehensive than earlier ones, confirmed the medical benefits of taking one drink a day. A shot a day keeps the doctor at bay; it's a saying in the process of establishing itself.

It doesn't matter much whether it's a glass of wine, a stein of beer or a shot of whiskey. In whatever guise, booze will do much DTC to enhance the longevity of the imbiber. It's best for codgers and those in middle life than for the sprouts. Imagine, a benefit that comes with age rather than with youth.

All this fine scholarship conceivably could be enhanced by the large variety of glasses available in any household. There's the three-ounce juice glass, or the six-ounce water glass. There's the smaller white wine glass and the more capacious red wine goblet. But the scientists did their duty and, rather than leave it to subjective interpretation of the laity, they specified the size of the portion they had in mind. You could have five ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer. If you felt like it, one cocktail would provide the same benefit.

At first blush, the announcement a couple of weeks ago restored a modicum of standing to some of the perpetually hung-over among us. As a result, for a minute, it looked as if science was coming to the aid of an industry in distress.

Since law enforcement made the connection between drinking and automobile accidents and other unsocial behavior, restaurants and bars, office parties and even home entertainment have seen the rate of alcoholic consumption plummet. In much the same way that cigarette smoking no longer is automatically a part of the American way of entertainment, so the intake of booze has surrendered a lot of its former position in socializing.

So when the New England Journal of Medicine published the finding that a daily glass of alcohol is better for you than teetotaling, it looked like a shot in the arm for bars and restaurants.

But in the same way that the one-glass recommendation is not an invitation to open-ended indulgence, it also is not the savior of makers and purveyors of wine and spirits. The explanation is that we in this country consume so much booze already that if everyone of age were now to take one drink, but only one, a day, we would be reducing the national intake by about half. Now that's a sobering thought.

Which goes to show that while some among us are abusing our life expectancy by drinking not at all or too sporadically, a lot more are drinking too much too often.

Sorry, booze industry, the medicinal benefits of a drink-a-day in theory should only be more trouble to come for you. But the likelihood is that it won't happen, because there is a multitude of amateur logicians out there who, assaying these ponderous implications, are susceptible to concluding that if one is good, then two inescapably have got to be better, what science says to the contrary notwithstanding.

For a long while, the movies we saw ennobled drinking, and portrayed it as an act of quintessential sophistication. You were hard pressed to find a film in which the characters did not sip their way through life, puffing all the while on the ubiquitous cigarette.

Since those days, there is reason for us to know better, even if we don't conduct ourselves in line with the state of available knowledge. The beauty of the findings about one-glass-a-day is that it combines a pleasure with a tangible benefit on the proviso of exercising self-control. When you think about it, that's a formula that would apply to many situations.

Harry Rosenfeld is editor-at-large of the Albany Times Union.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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