Tough talk on wine and health

The health lobby is coming for wine, and the wine trade has yet to mount a response. Felicity Carter has some ideas.

Photo by Online Marketing on Unsplash
Photo by Online Marketing on Unsplash

Recently, I gave a lecture to MW students on the challenges facing the global wine trade. As I spoke, I watched some slump deeper into their chairs. One or two looked to be questioning their life choices. 

Admittedly, my lecture notes depressed even me. In my 17 years or so of reporting on wine, I have never seen the wine trade facing so many difficult issues at one time, from climate change to tariffs.

There is one urgent problem in particular, that wine has failed to confront: the health lobby.

Wine and health

In January 2016, Dame Sally Davies, Britain’s Chief Medical Officer, announced that there was no safe limit for alcohol. She also issued new alcohol guidelines that lowered the weekly recommended maximum amount of alcohol, based on a deep dive into the evidence. “This is the first time any country has done a major review of the science in Europe in over 20 years,” she said. There was worse news to come. In 2018, The Lancet medical journal said, “No level of alcohol consumption improves health,” based on a study done of 195 countries and territories from 1990 to 2016.

These are only two of the recent dire warnings against alcohol – and consumers are listening. Across the Western world, consumption of alcohol is dropping, particularly in younger drinkers.

This trend is something that, on balance, the wine trade ought to welcome, as “drinking less but better” has always been the stated goal. The gloomy view of alcohol is, however, hard to square with the view that the wine trade has always had of itself – that wine people are the good guys, whose product has health benefits, but few downsides. After all, if getting drunk is your aim, there are cheaper and easier methods than a bottle of wine.

Unfortunately, it’s this complacent view that has left the wine trade wholly unprepared for the health lobby’s attacks.

What can be done?

The international wine trade is fragmented, and so has no central lobbying group who can speak for it. Anything the wine trade does will be a piecemeal response that depends on individual efforts.

With that in mind, what follows is just my personal opinion, based on watching how the alcohol debate is playing out in both social media and mainstream media.

The most important thing is to take the threat seriously. Wine people who take to social media to mock efforts like Dry January – which they do like clockwork when January comes around – have got their heads in the sand. Trying to kill Dry January by promoting #tryjanuary, the campaign to get people to try new wines, is even worse, because it looks like the wine industry is putting out propaganda to deny the harms of alcohol.

Speaking of propaganda, wine people should stop writing and spreading bogus wine and health stories. Any time some tabloid runs a story about how wine cures Alzheimer’s, or promotes clear skin, or whatever the health claim du jour is, someone in wine will spread it. Writing about wine and health should be confined to science writers, who not only understand how to interpret original research, but who also know the difference between absolute and relative risk. The goal should not be to convince the public that wine is a health drink – it’s not, and any benefits depend on the health status of the individual – but to push back against the claim that wine in moderation is a poison, when it isn’t.

Another thing to avoid is using wine to fundraise for breast cancer, given that research consistently shows that drinking alcohol raises a woman’s risk of some types of breast cancer. It would be terrible if a wine company was accused of pinkwashing, when they were just making a deeply felt gesture.

Wine has got a lot of good things going for it – vines stop soil erosion in marginal regions, keep people on the land, and maintain centuries-old traditions. It’s the drink that brings friends, families and even enemies to the table together, that slows down time and opens up conversations.

That’s what needs to be emphasised. Mocking efforts to lower the harms of alcohol, concealing alcohol sponsorship of influencers, and spreading false information about wine and health can only have one result – it will make the wine industry look as though it’s using the Big Tobacco playbook. And that spells trouble for everybody.

Felicity Carter

This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2020 of Meininger's Wine International magazine, available by subscription in print or digital.

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