Numbers unarguable: For pity's sake have a drink

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A shocking new study has revealed that giving up drinking perceptibly increases your chance of getting cancer. If you stay on the booze, however, your chances of getting cancer will be pretty much exactly the same as if you had never touched a drop in your life.

One need hardly add that this heartening result for boozers everywhere isn't being presented in this fashion. Consider this coverage from a major British daily:

At least 13,000 cancers in the UK every year are the result of people's drinking... thousands of cancers could have been avoided if people had consumed no more than one drink a day for women or two for men... "even more cancer cases would be prevented if people... stopped drinking alcohol at all."

In fact even the reseachers who carried out the analysis insert the telling phrase "if we assume causality". In other words they have no idea whether these cases of cancer were caused by booze, and cannot prove that they were. They merely associate certain patterns of behaviour with certain results.

This is important, because the authors go on to say:

10% (95% confidence interval 7 to 13%) and 3% (1 to 5%) of the incidence of total cancer was attributable to former and current alcohol consumption in the selected European countries

In other words they think - this being based largely on 403 cases of cancer occurring among men who had previously given up alcohol across eight European countries - that ten per cent of all the cancer which ever happens results from being a drinker and then giving up booze. Just three per cent of cancer results from starting to drink and carrying on doing so all your life.

If we assume causality, we can state just as authoritatively that giving up booze causes cancer. The German epidemiologist quoted above by the Grauniad is thus entirely wrong: if more people stopped drinking alcohol at all, there would be a lot more cancer - based on this study.

Obviously that's a silly conclusion to reach: but the conclusion reached by the researchers is just as silly. Once we throw out the data regarding former alcohol users, the salient fact is this: the Hazard Risk Ratio for lifetime drinkers compared to those who had never (or anyway claimed to have never) touched a drop is almost exactly 1 - that is for practical purposes a lifetime drinker's chances of getting cancer are indistinguishable from those of a lifetime teetotaller.

If they had only produced that figure, of course, the article would never have been published at all - let alone been picked up by the non-medical media. Nobody is going to get excited about a possible three per cent (quite likely just one per cent even by the authors' skewed account) of all cancers being attributable to something as mainstream as booze.

The headlining figure could only be produced by comparing cancer rates among lifetime-teetotal men and former-drinker-now-teetotal men - both of which kinds of people are statistical freaks in all the countries studied. Funnily enough the deadly effects of giving up booze appear far less marked among women - quite likely because these two aberrant behaviour patterns are much more common for women, so the numbers were bigger in their case.

One should also note that fewer than a third of the study subjects were men, casting yet more suspicion (if such were needed) on numbers for men plucked from this study and then extrapolated onto the entire population. If the study authors hadn't chosen to focus on the freakish-behaviour groups among fewer than a third of their subjects, their numbers would have looked boring indeed. In choosing to do this they give clear-cut indication of having set out to prove a predetermined position, and in this sort of statistical work, plucking selected numbers from a vast dataset most of which was not used, you can always get the result you want by fiddling around long enough.

The study, then, is worthless guff. Perhaps coincidentally it is published under a Creative Commons non-commercial licence, so you can read it over a pint here - or more pleasantly skip straight to having the pint followed by another pint or two, so putting yourself over the recommended daily limit. (Some 40 per cent of the UK study participants admitted they do this every day over time: it seems likely that in reality a majority of Brits violate the limit routinely. No allowance was made by the researchers for the fact that people lowball what they drink while filling in survey forms - and probably claim to be or have been teetotallers when in fact they aren't and haven't, too).

We find the excellent Daily Mash summing-up of the research impossible to improve upon:

[The pretend scientist] admitted that bringing up the subject of drinking and cancer on a Friday, during a spell of warm, sunny weather, does make him seem like the sort of utterly miserable fucker who deserves to be eaten by a crocodile.

Cheers! ®

Updated to Add

Some of you have written in to suggest that the researchers may have misplaced a comma in the first paragraphs of their paper - in other words they meant to contend that 10 per cent of all cancer in men comes from being a drinker or a former drinker: 3 per cent in women. Certainly they say so further down.

Nonetheless it remains plain from TABLE 2 - as we linked to above - that former drinkers are at much greater risk than current ones, compared to never-drank-at-all. GIVING UP DRINKING CAUSES CANCER!!

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