Saturday, September 25, 2010

Well hello kitty: Are you really old enough to drink?

If you are a fan of the Hello Kitty products (the smiling kitten face icon from Japan) then you will want to know that there is now a hello Kitty brand of pink sparkling wine. Produced by the Italian wine producer Tenimenti Castelrotto in partnership with luxury goods company Camomilla, Hello Kitty spumante is currently available only in the U.S., Russia, and Singapore. According to winemaker Patrizia Torti, “'Hello Kitty … is a recognised cult fashion icon among teenagers and adults around the world.” Is Hello Kitty really grown up enough to be in the wine business? What should the minimum drinking age be anyway?

We are dealing with some pretty sticky issues here. We are conflicted about marketing alcoholic beverages to young people (not that Hello Kitty is exclusively a young brand) and there are definitely mixed mesages on drinking. In the U.S. the debate has centered around whether the legal drinking age should be 18 or 21. here’s a brief summary of the arguments:

Against lower drinking age: Teens are undergoing a multitude of physical and mental changes, combined with peer pressure and other factors, which can lead to abusive drinking patterns. Studies show that teens who drink have a greater probability of binge drinking and academic failure.

In favor of a lower drinking age: At age 18, most of the priviledges of adulthood are conferred including voting and military service. Prohibiting teens from drinking in bars, restaurants, and public locations has the effect of forcing them to drink in unsupervised places such as fraternity houses or house parties. A higher legal drinking age actually encourages abuse by sending the message that drinking conveys maturity. A lower legal age makes it less taboo and creates a more favorable environment for teaching moderation and responsible consumption. It is this failure to model healthy drinking that fosters binge drinking.

Statistics are tossed back and forth about whether traffic accidents are increased or decreased by a lower drinking age, but my personal view is that the wheels started to come off the cart when we divorced wine with dinner. There is no healthier way to consume alcohol that to make wine a food, and if you have been paying attention at all here you know that it is an impressively healthy thing indeed. The age-old European practice of serving the young people watered down wine with family meals cannot be considered by any stretch of the imagination as a step toward alcohol abuse.

But Hello Kitty, you may be a special case. Are you sweet and silly or a real grown-up drink?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Better red than dead, wine drinkers outlive teetotalers

Wine drinkers outlive nondrinkers, or so the studies show. But nondrinkers are not all created equal, and that along with other factors makes it difficult to draw firm inferences about healthy drinking. For example, an oft-cited problem is what is called the “sick quitter” hypothesis, which holds that among the nondrinkers are those with a history of problem drinking. Their health having already suffered, the comparison may be unfair by lumping them in with healthier folks who abstain for religious or other personal reasons. Moderate wine drinkers may differ socioeconomically or in other important demographic variables. Anti-alcohol advocates are quick to point out such problems with population studies.

So while there are several studies showing greater average lifespan in wine drinkers, more needs to be done. One good study out this summer may give comfort to wine drinkers and help dispel some of the critics. The project, a joint effort of Stanford University and the University of Texas, looked at all-cause mortality over a 20-year period, comparing various factors to death rates, beginning with a study cohort of individuals aged 55-65. As we have come to expect from such studies, death rate was twice as high in nondrinkers compared to moderate drinkers, and 70% higher in heavy drinkers. This is the classic J-shaped curve that defines just about any disease condition when plotted against wine consumption.

What’s different about this latest report is that the researchers went to great lengths to adjust for the effects of previous problem drinkers and socioeconomic factors. Taking all of this into account, the differences were less dramatic but still clear, with moderate drinkers still only about half as likely to die of any cause compared to teetotalers.

Ultimately the question of how drinking affects lifespan is too complicated to reduce to a simple mathematical formula anyway. Alcohol remains a part of whatever the formula is, just in the right amounts. Wine drinkers do a lot of other healthy things, and have a higher quality of life in old age too. Viva vino!

Holahan CJ, Schutte KK, Brennan PL, Holahan CK, Moos BS, Moos RH. Late-Life Alcohol Consumption and 20-Year Mortality. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2010 Aug 24.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What is responsible drinking?

The paper today featured a full-page ad exhorting us to drink responsibly over the Labor Day weekend, good advice to be sure. The main point was an emphasis on the equivalency of different forms of drinking in terms of the total amount of alcohol: One 12-oz beer = one cocktail = one 5-oz glass of wine. Perhaps the thinking is that people lose track of the true amount they are consuming with lower-alcohol beverages. Just a couple of beers or a few glasses of wine, not like hitting the hard liquor, right? The tagline was “It’s not just what you drink, it’s how much.” Useful information I suppose but perhaps an oversimplification when it comes to wine, as we have seen so many times before.

My advice here would be to look at the question of not just how much you drink, but how you drink. Beer may be consumed with meals but is marketed as a “party” drink, or refreshment while watching TV or sporting events. Historically (and I mean a very long time ago) it was considered to be a sort of food, a way to get nutrition from grains in a relatively non-perishable form. But I would guess that today beer consumption with meals is only a fraction of the whole. With cocktails it is more clearly all about the drinking for many people (which may explain why this ad was sponsored by the distilled spirits council.)

But when it comes to wine, the pattern of how people consume it is different. While wine may be consumed without food, often it is part of the evening meal. Drinking with food both slows down the absorption of the alcohol and the pace of drinking. A great many other healthy behaviors are linked to wine consumption too, placing wine at the center of a healthy lifestyle. Simply comparing alcohol dosing to beer and distilled spirits misses this very important point about healthy drinking, by presuming that all forms of consumption are equally harmful. It frames wine as a drug instead of a food.

I would suggest that we replace the phrase “responsible drinking” with “healthy drinking” so that we frame the discussion in a more positive light. As long as we view alcohol through a lens that shows only the detrimental aspects of drinking, we paradoxically encourage the view of alcohol as a drug. But moderate drinkers outlive nondrinkers and are healthier, especially with wine. Responsible drinking is healthy drinking, and the “how” and “what” do make a difference.