When Is The Seventh-Day Adventist Church Going To Change It's Position On Alcohol Use?
This question was asked of me during one of my
recent itineraries when I had the privilege of
speaking at an alcohol symposium, following an Adventist
health professionals conference. I was stunned!
Studies abound that tout numerous benefits of alcohol
consumption on heart health, and many people now are
questioning the church’s position of total abstinence when
it comes to drinking alcohol. But the simple answer is that
the Seventh-day Adventist Church cannot change its stance,
because it’s not merely an issue of physical health. So, how
should practicing, health-conscious Adventists respond?
As a physician I understand the dilemma, and will seek
to clarify the issue in order to help people make a well-informed,
evidence-based, and, most important, spiritually
We should avoid all things harmful, including—perhaps
especially—those that cloud the mind and may impair our
sensitivity to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, jeopardizing
our relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. Although the consumption
of alcohol has many significant health risks, the
prime reason to abstain remains a spiritually moral one.
ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION AND GLOBAL HEALTH
Alcohol consumption varies widely between countries,
depending on cultural traditions. A disparity between developed
and emerging economies also exists. Alcohol, like
tobacco, is being exported to developing countries, adding
huge burdens to already inadequate health systems. According
to the “Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health” released
by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva,
• Approximately 2.5 million people die from alcoholrelated causes each year;
• Fifty-five percent of adults have consumed it;
• Four percent of all deaths are related to alcohol through injuries, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and liver cirrhosis;
• Globally, 6.2 percent of male deaths are related to alcohol,
and 1.1 percent of female deaths;
• One in five men in the Russian Federation and neighboring
countries dies from alcohol-related causes.
The pattern of alcohol consumption is changing, as
mentioned previously. Figures for 2001-2005 released by
the World Health Organization (WHO)2
revealed that worldwide,
6.13 liters of pure alcohol were consumed per year,
per person, aged 15 years or older. This amount appeared to
be stable in the Americas and the European, Eastern Mediterranean,
and Western Pacific regions; however, market increases
were noted in Africa and Southeast Asia. Health risk
increases even more when binge drinking occurs; in other
words, when people drink to get drunk. Binge drinking may be defined differently according to the region of the world:
in the United States more than five consecutive drinks for a
male and more than four for a female; in Australia more than
four drinks per night (previously, more than seven drinks per
night for men and five for women). Binge drinking is increasing
in many parts of the world, mainly among youth, but all
age groups are affected.3
A recent book on research and public policy states that
“alcohol is a risk factor for a wide range of health conditions
and social problems. It accounts for approximately 4 percent
of deaths worldwide and 6 percent of the global burden of
disease, placing it alongside tobacco as one of the leading
preventable causes of death and disability.”4
Alcohol is no ordinary commodity and is dangerous.
RISKS OF ADDICTION
Alcohol is a known addictive substance. The susceptibility
(or likelihood) of becoming an alcoholic (euphemistically
termed “problem drinker”) depends on numerous factors.
The chance of alcoholism developing over a lifetime is
13 percent (13 people of every 100 who drink alcohol). If
there is a first-degree relative (father, mother, uncle, aunt,
grandparent) who suffered from alcohol dependence, this
percentage doubles. If experimentation with alcohol begins
under the age of 14 years, the percentage chance of dependence
increases to 40 percent-plus.5
the importance of alcohol education from an early age and
fostering relationships and connectedness with youth. This
social support develops resilience, enabling youth to cope
with difficult decisions and choices despite peer pressure.
An additional and vital layer of protection for young and old
is connection to a set of values, such as the principles of the
Bible and walking with the risen Savior.
ALCOHOL AND CANCER
Cancer is one of the leading causes of death globally. An
interesting example of the relationship between drinking alcohol
and cancer comes from the European Union, where
cancer is the second-most-common cause of death and
2.5 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year. It’s
estimated that 10 percent of cancers in men and 3 percent
in women can be directly attributed to alcohol use. It’s further
estimated that 30 percent of cancers in this part of the
world could be prevented through healthier lifestyle choices.
The 2010 Eurobarometer Report, however, found that 1 in
5 European citizens do not believe that there’s a connection
between alcohol and cancer; 1 in 10 is totally ignorant of the
fact that alcohol consumption can cause cancer.6
ignorant does not spare us the consequences.
There is robust evidence linking alcohol as a cause of
breast cancer in women and colon cancer in both men and
women. These findings have been summarized and reported
in the World Cancer Research Fund’s comprehensive reports
in 2007 and 2011.7
The point strongly emphasized in these and many other scientific reports is that there is no safe
limit/dose of alcohol that may be recommended to avoid its
carcinogenic effect. This places the perspective on any recommendation
that alcohol be used for health benefits, even
cardiac, because the associated side effects are real and
ALCOHOL AND SOCIETY
It is well known that alcohol use is associated (often
causally) with accidents of all kinds: road fatalities, domestic
violence, murder, rape, and other criminal activities. In 2010
Professor David Nutt and coresearchers published an analysis
in the prestigious Lancet medical journal showing that in
the United Kingdom alcohol is more harmful than heroin and
crack cocaine. This is because the researchers focused on
the effect the drugs/toxins had on not only the user but others
as well (family, community, and society). Heroin, crack cocaine,
and methamphetamine were the most harmful drugs
Alcohol is also the leading cause of preventable mental
retardation in the world. This is because alcohol readily
crosses the placenta and damages the developing brain of
the unborn baby. Again, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption
ALCOHOL AND HEART HEALTH
“heart healthy” and protective against coronary artery
disease. Much has been written in the popular and scientific
literature on the subject. All the scientific studies have been
retrospective analyses, which makes them subject to what
are known as “confounders.” Confounders are factors that
make interpretation of the results of the data being analyzed
more difficult and also may result in erroneous conclusions.
Naimi and others concluded in 2005 that some or all of the
apparent cardiac protective effect of moderate drinking may
be because of these confounders.10 Other studies have continued
this caution and noted that the non drinkers included in
many of the studies had more risk factors for heart disease,
were less well-educated, had less access to health care and
insurance, and were from poorer socioeconomic groups.
Some included in the nondrinking group had been drinkers
prior to the studies being done and had stopped drinking for
health reasons.11 A recent paper by Dr. Boris Hansel adds
weight to the view that the real explanation of positive cardiac
outcomes in moderate drinkers is not that alcohol is protective,
but that the average health status and healthful lifestyle
in other behaviors, such as exercise and diet, is better than
that of nondrinkers.12
In summary, taking into account the significant health
risks related to alcohol use, it does not make sense to promote
its use for heart health, especially when there are proven
and safe interventions for heart disease prevention, such
as daily exercise and a healthful diet.
We sometimes persist in trawling the shark-infested waters
of the definite evidence showing the dangers of alcohol in
search of one sardine’s worth of positive, healthful evidence
in favor of alcohol use. Instead, we are blessed to have a
blueprint that offers protection against the problems alcohol
inevitably brings in its wake: informed choices, exercise, rest,
healthful eating, fresh air and sunshine, pure water (within
and without), trust in God, social support, a good dose of
optimism, and, of course, temperance, which by definition
encourages us to dispense entirely with all things harmful
and to use wisely those things that are healthful and good.
Temperance, lived through the enabling power of our gracious
Lord Jesus Christ, serves as a foundation for a Spiritfilled
experience that can celebrate life free from alcohol and
its attendant ills.
So should people who don’t drink start to drink alcohol?
Based on the evidence, definitely not! Should those who currently
drink alcohol quit? Based on the same evidence, unequivocally
“You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore
honor God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:19, 20, NIV).
To whom do we belong?
4 Thomas Babor, Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity, second edition (New York: Oxford Press, 2010), p. 70.
5 Richard K. Ries, et al., Principles of Addiction Medicine, fourth edition (Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer, 2009).
8 David Nutt, et al., “Drug Harms in the UK: A Multicriteria Analysis,” The Lancet, Nov. 1, 2010.
9 Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity, p. 1,393.
10 Timothy S. Naimi, et al., “Cardiovascular Risk Factors and Confounders Among Nondrinking and Moderate-Drinking U.S. Adults,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 28, no. 4 (2005) p. 369.
11 Kaye Middleton Fillmore, et al., “Moderate Alcohol Use and Reduced Mortality Risk: Systematic Error in Prospective Studies and New Hypotheses,” Addiction Research and Theory.
12 Boris Hansel, et al., “Relationship Between Alcohol Intake, Health and
Social Studies, and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in the Urban Paris-Ile-DeFrance
Cohort,” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 64:561-568.
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director
of the General Conference Health Ministries Department in Silver
Spring, Maryland, United States. This article was published in the
Adventist Review – December 22, 2011. Used by permission.