Inherent Vice: The Media’s Love Affair with “Healthy” Alcohol

Health halo drinks headlines

Contrary to decades of common medical advice, media coverage of beer, wine and spirits periodically hype the so-called “health benefits” of alcohol. Such stories have turned up everywhere from to Town and Country, suggesting that red wine can help you live longer, that one beer a day is good for your heart, or that a Champagne diet is a great way to lose weight.

So, what makes articles like these a favored topic for publishers, and what makes such seemingly counterintuitive stories popular with readers?

“Humans are susceptible to something called confirmation bias, in that we tend to believe information that supports our current beliefs,” says Dr. Jessica Myrick, associate professor at Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, who studies the media and consumer emotions. “So if you already like to drink alcohol and have convinced yourself it is healthy, you will be happy to see more information that supports that view.”

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That kind of confirmation can be powerful in terms of how we conceptualize things like alcohol, coffee and other pleasures. Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, says that these articles play on a “double standard” in many people’s conception of beer, wine and spirits, whereby alcoholic beverages are seen as both good and bad.

“Everyone likes to be told what they considered a vice is actually good for you,” she says. “It’s permission to indulge.”

In part, the taste of our favorite drinks affects how we think about them. Rutledge says, much like a how child reacts to being told to “eat your vegetables,” most things deemed healthy for us are often assumed to taste unpleasant. If something tastes delicious, it is often assumed to be bad for us.

The company we keep can also affect these perceptions.

“Because alcohol, coffee and other drinks are generally social experiences, we tend to associate them with interpersonal connections, relaxation and pleasure,” says Rutledge.

Dr. Kathleen Beullens, associate professor at the School for Mass Communication Research at Belgium’s University of Leuven, says that articles touting the benefits of alcohol can appeal for another reason. They can alleviate a feeling of cognitive dissonance between what we think we should be doing and what we are actually doing.

“Many people are aware of the negative effects of drinking, but drink anyway,” she says. For many, she says, such internal conflict can produce a feeling of mental discomfort. “Reading a newspaper article that states that drinking isn’t that bad after all might reduce this feeling of discomfort.”

Not only are people likely to believe articles that support their own biases about alcohol, but they’re also more likely to help promote such stories, says Myrick. In turn, publishers see more traction with them on social media.

“There is research to suggest that we are more likely to share news stories that are positive in nature,” she says. “An article telling you that your favorite beverage is healthy may be one you feel good about and want to share with others.”

“Everyone likes to be told what they considered a vice is actually good for you.”—Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge, director, Media Psychology Research Center

What should consumers think about articles that claim unexpected diet, health or longevity benefits from alcohol? Myrick says that readers should approach these with a critical eye.

Studies on alcohol and health that only cover a small test population may not accurately represent the general public. Stories based on multiple scientific studies are more likely to be trustworthy.

“Science works best when it builds upon previous work,” she says. “Ten different studies pointing to the benefits of a glass of wine is a lot different than a single study showing the same results.”

Myrick also suggests that readers examine if other lifestyle factors were considered in a scientific study.

“A study of marathoners who drink wine every day might give you different results than a study of sedentary individuals who drink wine every day,” she says.

As for the health benefits of alcohol, there’s certainly research that claims moderate drinking has some benefits. But when it comes to what, why and how much, the jury is still out.

Dr. David Belk, the physician and writer behind the website The True Cost of Healthcare, says that the relationship between alcohol and health is complex and often contradictory.

“Consuming large quantities of alcohol every day is certainly bad for you,” he says. “Heavy alcohol consumption can, over time, damage your liver, pancreas and heart. Moderate alcohol consumption, though, is not normally bad for those who tolerate it.”

One of the main problems, he says, is that “moderate alcohol consumption” can mean different things for different people, depending on their weight, gender and family background.

While studies have claimed to show that people who consume moderate amounts of alcohol might live longer or be healthier than those who consume no alcohol, Belk says that both groups generally do much better than heavy drinkers.

Somewhere in the middle of all that is a sweet spot for alcohol consumption and health. “I often tell my patients who consume alcohol that a glass or two of wine each day might very well be good for them,” says Belk. “But a bottle or two of wine each day never is.”

Published on July 31, 2020
Topics: Drinks