Smokers May Benefit from Red Wine

California researchers with the Kaiser Permanente health system report finding that a daily nip of red wine appears to decrease a man’s risk of developing lung cancer.

LUNG SAVER Will a nip a day keep the oncologist away? MJP/iStockphoto

Reporters run across scores of stories like this: Scientists have just discovered that eating/drinking (fill in some comestible) appears to reduce/increase an individual’s risk of (fill in the disease). And you’ll learn about many such studies in newspapers or TV broadcasts because they make for such easy breezy reporting. The observed links emerge out of the statistical morass of some epidemiological study. With only correlations to work from, there’s usually no messy mechanism to try and explain. Which means even a cub reporter can handle it.

And most who do tackle such stories cram the salient details into a sentence or two. Which may not do it justice.

The new Kaiser study was big — 84,170 subjects in all — which is good for cementing its statistical power. But all the participants were men and nearly all of those who developed lung cancer had smoked. At some level, this isn’t surprising, since smoking is such a strong risk factor for the disease. But this also limits the ability to extrapolate the findings to nonsmokers, the authors acknowledge in the October Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.

Their study compared lung cancer risks among people who drank any type of alcoholic beverage. Only red wine appeared protective; consumption of at least one glass a day correlated with a whopping 60 percent decreased risk of developing lung cancer. Among current and former smokers, anyway.

This would suggest we’d all benefit from a glass a day, right?

Except that any mechanism behind that protection might not work in the women (like me). Or never smokers (like me). Or young people of either gender, since the populations studied ran from 45 to 69 years old.

In fact, while trying to figure out what might explain the link, the authors noted that in wine drinkers don’t generally eat quite same foods as those who prefer other types of alcohol. For instance, they report, “Beer and liquor drinking were also associated with greater meat intake, whereas reduced meat consumption was found with wine drinking.” And those who habitually drank red wine appeared to eat more fruits and vegetables than the other groups.

So is the real operant factor here consumption of fruits and veggies? Might it be the resveratrol, a natural antioxidant in red-grape skins, that’s responsible? And if it was reservatrol, did the men get most of theirs from wine — or from other dietary sources such as blueberries and peanut butter?

In other words, the study raises plenty of questions.

So a guy — or gal — can justify downing a glass of red wine every day or so. But it’s probably too early to justify it as medicine.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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