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Another Look at the Red Wine Flap

March 26, 1992

The January, 1992, issue of Wines and Vines confirmed that red wine sales in the United States went up markedly in November and December of 1991. Dan Berger further underscored this in his article, "What's Red and Hyped and Sells All Over?" (Feb. 20). One of the major causes of that increase was the Nov. 17, 1991, "60 Minutes" broadcast, "The French Paradox" (based on a similarly titled article from In Health magazine, which was reprinted in several newspapers, including The Times).

Morley Safer opened that influential segment by noting, "If you're a middle-aged American man, your chances of dying of a heart attack are three times greater than a Frenchman of the same age. So it's obvious that the French are doing something right, something Americans are not doing."

Certainly this should grab our attention! Furthermore, Dan Berger notes that one courageous doctor, R. Curtis Ellison, has been willing to speak out about the benefits of wine, and is even willing to go on a tour sponsored by the Wine Institute. Berger notes that in that tour Ellison "will repeat his opinions on wine to the media." I would emphasize "opinions," and suggest that the media has done enough already.

The CBS segment discussed rich foods and the red wines that apparently counteract some of the caloric and/or cholesterol damage of that fare. Berger presents an excellent summary. But a very different and important question never arose, either in the original broadcast or in Berger's article: namely, are there really differences in the death rates and life expectancies of middle-aged males in France and the United States or do fewer heart attack deaths in France simply mean that males there are dying faster of other causes? Data strongly support the latter, and that might be one reason why it is difficult to find more doctors to go around promoting red wine consumption as some magic elixir that will extend our lives!

As nice as it would be to discover that the key to longevity was more Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, we must look more closely at the mortality statistics before rushing off to our favorite wine shops. While the media has already given too much attention to the benefits of red wine consumption, it has fallen short in examining the overall picture.

First, age specific death rates for the 50-54 age cohort of males, for example, in France and the United States in recent years have been virtually identical, so Frenchman have discovered no magic way of beating the grim reaper. Second, for a 50 year old male, additional life expectancy in the United States is 25.6 years, whereas in France it is slightly lower 25.46 years. Third, and one of the many trade-offs that Frenchmen apparently make, the death rate for chronic liver disease and cirrhosis of the liver in France is 22.6 per 100,000 compared to only 1.2 per 100,000 in the United States and a mere 5.2 per 100,000 in England. Does this mean that we should really all be drinking more ale? Alas, I think not!

Matters of life and death need to be looked at as carefully as possible by the media. To single out one cause of death and focus on it to the exclusion of all others fails to provide consumers with information that they need. Clearly, moderate wine consumption has shown to have many benefits, but it in no way has extended life expectancy in France in comparison to that found in the United States.

GARY PETERS, Associate Dean, School of Social and Behavioral Science, California State University, Long Beach

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