A bipartisan coalition of 28 members of Congress recently warned the Trump administration about a government advisory committee’s report, which may have prioritized opinions over sound science in ways that could hinder the American people’s freedom to enjoy alcohol in moderation.
Every five years, the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services (HHS) review and revise the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Typically, this process starts with a government-assembled advisory committee providing recommended modifications in a publicly issued scientific report.
This group of outside, independent analysts is supposed to make recommendations based on the preponderance of current scientific data. But this year, against decades of evidence supporting two-drink moderation, the advisory committee’s report recommended that the government reduce federal guidelines from two drinks a day to one for adult men.
In critiquing the advisory committee’s proposed adjustment, the House of Representative’s coalition of opposition stressed that this suggested change came despite the scientific report stating “approximately half of the [reviewed] studies report[ing] significant findings that low average alcohol consumption…was associated with reduced risk of all-cause mortality compared with never drinking alcohol” and “approximately half of the studies indicated no significant relationship.”
In their letter to Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and HHS Alex Azar, these 28 members wrote that, “This recommendation runs directly contrary to the DGAC’s charter requiring that recommendations are based on the ‘preponderance’ of current science.” They went on to express concern over how “limited evidence outside the scope of the systematic review was [potentially] used to derive at the recommended change to the daily drinking guideline for men, which is a violation of the DGAC charter.”
Fueling congressional concerns over the advisory committee’s recommendation is how its scientific report acknowledged how “only 1 study examined differences among men comparing 1 vs. 2 drinks.” By comparison, the advisory committee’s charter states that its report “shall be based on the preponderance of scientific and medical knowledge current at the time of publication.”
Five Harvard University scientists, including three that served on past Dietary Guidelines advisory committees, share Congress’s skepticism over the scientific advisory committee’s proposal to change the definition of moderate alcohol consumption.
“These arbitrary selections all appear intended to support claims made by members of the DGAC prior to appointment, rather than as systematic and transparent reviews of existing scientific evidence,” they wrote in official comments. “We 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 Departments of Agriculture and HHS are expected to use the advisory committee’s scientific report as a resource to finalize the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans this December.
Before doing so, members of the U.S. House request that they “swiftly review the process and inform [them] of the evidence base used by the Committee to justify this departure from long-standing U.S. guidelines regarding moderate alcohol consumption.” They also ask that the two departments “ensure any published recommendations are consistent with the requirements for transparency and scientific rigor that govern the Dietary Guidelines for Americans development process.”
For the record, I don’t drink alcohol at all. But I do not believe it is appropriate for government to impose its personal preferences masquerading as science on an adult population that should be trusted to make their own decisions about their lives. It remains to be seen whether the Department of Agriculture or HHS will adopt a similar attitude and act on Congress’s recommendations as well.