The federal government is considering changes to its Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) that could cause unintended harm to an economy recovering from the COVID-related lockdowns.
On July 15, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) published a major change to longstanding recommendations, dating back to the 1980s, for daily alcohol consumption for men, lowering it from two drinks per day to one. These guidelines are issued every five years and are highly influential, informing health policy for agencies throughout the U.S. government and abroad.
The DGAC reviewed 60 research studies examining the link between drinking and health, and only one called for lowering the recommendation. Most of the studies either found actual health benefits from moderate drinking or no correlation between moderate drinking and health outcomes.
The decision to lower the recommended amount is a direct violation of the committee’s charter, which requires it to consider a “preponderance of the evidence” in creating recommendations.
A group of Harvard University health scientists, several of whom served on past DGACs, criticized the change.
“The 2020-2025 DGAC failed to demonstrate that, in the last 5 years, sufficient new data emerged to change all previous guidance,” the scientists wrote. “To the contrary, the Committee’s review identified ‘only 1 study [that] examined differences among men comparing 1 vs 2 drinks.’”
“[W]e view the limited, arbitrary, and unsystematic evidence reviewed in the draft proposal as insufficient to warrant any meaningful changes to the 2015-2020 DGA that have served Americans well,” the Harvard health scientists wrote.
Five U.S. Senators and 28 members of the House of Representatives called on the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) to review the process and provide evidence justifying the new recommendation.
“We are concerned that the Subcommittee’s process and the members’ resulting recommendations are inconsistent with this statutory aim and the DGAC’s published procedure for systematic reviews,” the senators wrote. “The Subcommittee’s published Nutrition Evidence Systematic Review (NESR) protocol included 60 research studies on the relationship between alcohol and all-cause mortality, however, the Committee concedes in the report that ‘only 1 study examined differences among men comparing 1 vs. 2 drinks.’”
State agricultural commissioners in Kentucky and Idaho expressed concern over the economic impact of the proposed change, particularly for agriculture, in letters to the USDA. The letters state that the alcoholic beverage industry provides 38,000 agricultural jobs and contributes $5 billion per year to the nation’s economy.
The proposed guideline revisions come at a time when alcohol abuse among men in the United States has been declining. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found alcohol abuse among men has dropped by more than 25 percent over the past decade and is at historic-low levels. The same survey also found a 4 percent drop in binge drinking among men in the years 2013-2018.
The new guidelines could harm all those involved in the supply chain of alcoholic beverage manufacturing, from distillers and brewers to farmers to equipment manufacturers, the agricultural commissioners say. The chief input in all alcoholic beverages is agricultural commodities, such as corn for whiskey, barley and hops for beer, and grapes for wine, and production of all of these has been growing. In 2007-2017, the use of U.S. corn for distilled spirits increased by 860 percent, and the use of rye for this purpose increased by 147 percent.
A decrease in consumption caused by a lower recommended level could reduce economic growth and tax revenue while states are struggling to recover from the economic downturn caused by the government-imposed COVID-19 lockdowns.
In comments to the USDA and HHS, former director of the HHS Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration H. Wesley Clark said this new recommendation could signal further government actions that would interfere with consumer choice. Alcohol consumption has been stable for 13 years, Clark noted, and the “Dietary Guidelines on alcohol consumption based as they are on a near zero risk paradigm should not be a sleight of hand vehicle for Prohibition,” Clark wrote.