Wine, capitalism and your health

by Don Franks

According to Benjamin Franklin, “Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance”.

Ben never drove through Marlborough – New Zealand’s largest wine region has hard work, high risk and tense competition written all over it.

Mile after mile the land is pinned by hard-treated posts, in dead straight rows.  Countless workers have implanted the structures and cropped to uniform size the little emerging buds on which everything depends.

On frosty nights thousands are spent to save millions as helicopters beat their blades above the vines.

Marlborough’s 24,000 hectares of vineyard is set to be boosted by a further 6800 hectares by 2019/20.

When capitalism sees a potential profit there is no hesitation and no half measures.  So the profitable commodity of wine is growing, in several directions.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have found that the capacity of wine glasses ballooned nearly seven-fold over the past 300 years, rising most sharply in the last two decades in line with a surge in wine consumption.

A typical wine glass 300 years ago would only have held about a half of today’s smallest “official” measure of 125ml.

Along with glass sizes, wine’s alcohol percentage has grown over recent years – from 8 or 9 percent to a more robust and addictive 12 or 13.  Uncomfortably for producers and drinkers, the medical science case against wine has been growing too.

In 1987 the Royal College of Physicians, concerned about reports of alcohol related ill-health, put together a working committee, of epidemiologists, cardiologists, neurologists and endocrinologists.
This group created science-based guidelines for alcohol consumption.  It advised that men could drink 21 units a week with little risk of harm, while women could drink 14 a week.
Their unit then was a glass of wine, at the then standard eight to 10 per cent alcohol.
Medical consensus today has reduced the “safe limit” to 14 weekly units for men and half of that for women and the elderly.

It gets worse.

Some experts now believe there is no safe level of drinking: Sir Ian Gilmore, a liver specialist and former president of the Royal College of Physicians, and a key adviser for the UK’s most recent guidelines, believes it’s misleading to tell people that there is any quantity of alcohol that would do no harm.

“Alcohol is classified by the World Health Organisation as a class 1 carcinogen,” Gilmore has said.  “You can’t say it is safe.”

One more time, capitalism and health are on collision course.

The stakes are high.  Alcohol is a huge source of capitalist government revenue.  Alcohol is also a long-entrenched part of western culture.  So many occasions large and small are presently unthinkable without it.

Tonight I enjoyed a Chardonnay with dinner.  It was nice, but I can’t quite say that it came delivering “fewer tensions’.


  1. Very typically junk-science at it’s worst. When you seen “Some experts” one should run the other direction. Easily I can show that “some experts” and “recent studies” show that drinking a glass or two of wine *everyday* lengthens ones lifespan. Please this is incredibly nonsensical.

    So you all know…there is NO science that says any amount of wine is harmful. None. It’s a extrapolations, not done on human clinical trials, but on…rats. Generally speaking, the statistics will show that countries with similar economic levels of development people live longer with few chronic diseases in heavy wine drinking countries than those that consume less wine. France vs the United States for example. But it is only of ‘interest’ because correlation does not equal causation. However, even the American College of Cardiology agrees drinking some wine is better than drinking no wine. And a recent study out of UC Irvine notes “Drinking about two glasses of wine or beer a day was linked to an 18% drop in a person’s risk of early death—an even stronger effect than the life-preserving practice of exercise, according to the researchers. ”

    Secondly, wine has *not* gone up in alcohol content. Since..when exactly? Wine is *cheaper* to make *without* as high an alcohol content…all wine runs from 9% to 13% and has for over 100 years at least. What they found is that the longer a wine ages…the more it tastes better, depending on barrel material and the fermentation process. The longer it ferments, the more enriched with alcohol it becomes.

    This is article is beneath the generally good quality seen here on Red Line…

    David Walters

  2. David, If I’d just written” some experts” and left it there, you’d have a point. As can be seen by any reader I went on to cite and quote a specific expert, Sir Ian Gilmore, a liver specialist and former president of the Royal College of Physicians, whose opinion may be checked and verified.

    There is a strong scientific consensus that alcohol drinking can cause several types of cancer . In its Report on Carcinogens, the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services lists consumption of alcoholic beverages as a known human carcinogen.

    The evidence indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks—particularly the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time—the higher his or her risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer. Even light drinkers (those who have no more than one drink per day) have a modestly increased risk of some cancers. Based on data from 2009, an estimated 3.5% of cancer deaths in the United States (about 19,500 deaths) were alcohol related.

    Clear patterns have emerged between alcohol consumption and the development of the following types of neck, oral cavity, liver, breast, colon and esophageal cancer.
    Still, claims are made for alcohol’s longevity benefits . Here, there is no consensus. According to “Live Science”: a 2016 meta-analysis of 87 studies linking alcohol consumption and longevity, suggested casual drinking may be an indicator of other lifestyle factors related to good health rather than a cause. Older individuals who abstain from drinking might do so because of existing health issues, the study said, or because they had problems with excessive drinking in the past. In other words, if a person is still drinking at age 90, their health is likely good enough for them to do so. Good health among senior citizens can be attributed to a multitude of other lifestyle factors including diet, exercise and strong social relationships, the study reported.
    Internationaly, there has been increasing research into alcohols harmful effects, with disturbing results.
    The World Health Organisation report of September 2018 noted that:
    • Worldwide, 3 million deaths every year result from harmful use of alcohol, this represent 5.3 % of all deaths.
    • Also that the harmful use of alcohol is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions.
    The substance is also the most destructive addictive drug in New Zealand, its production, distribution and relentless promotion firmly in the hands of big cynical capitalist companies.

  3. Don, I understand this. But it is wrong to *draw* conclusions without doing a risk benefit analysis. Yes, the consensus is that alcohol is linked to some cancers. All the major cancer societies state this. What’s not stated is really how much is bad and how much is tolerable. If one or two drinks of alcohol, say wine at 13% alcohol by volume, the percentage of getting cancer is so low as to be statistically irrelevant, then why this doom and gloom? Again, there is no study that was done on *moderate* amounts of alcohol consumption. Alcohol are *not* cigarettes nor should any small amount of possible cancers be a reason for not engaging in it’s consumption. Again, the risk assessment is not done in these reports. Here is what the British Cancer Society says, after going on how the various forms of cancer can, *in some cases* be attributed to alcohol consumption:

    “According to ASCO, in 2012 alcohol was responsible for 5.5 percent of all new cases of cancer and 5.8 percent of cancer deaths worldwide. In the U.S., an estimated 3.5 percent of cancer deaths are attributable to drinking. If you flip those numbers, you’ll see that 96.5 percent of those deaths aren’t related to alcohol. And because it’s likely that heavy drinking is associated with most of the deaths, the risk for moderate and light drinking may be negligible.”

    In other words, like most things (except for tobacco!) moderation is what counts. The way you present it is the FUD argument (Fear, uncertainty and dread). This should be rejected out of hand. And, the effects of heavy drinking go way beyond the few, very few cases of cancer one might get from drinking a few glasses of wine a day. Even the quote I gave above only implies, but doesn’t parse, at all, the relative amounts of consumption to draw a conclusion as you have.

  4. I agree with you about low statistical risk David. Two or three unit drinks a week is probably no more risky than the chance of a careful driver having a serous road accident. Nevertheless, I do have some fear, uncertainty and, yes, dread about the continuing carnage of the alcohol industry.
    Because alcohol is a highly addictive drug, significant numbers of people come to drink heavily.
    In 2016/17, 15% of past-year drinkers consumed a large amount of alcohol (six or more standard drinks on a drinking occasion) at least weekly, with men (21%) more likely to consume a large about weekly than women (9%) (Ministry of Health, 2017). In 2017/18, 25% of New Zealanders aged 15 years or more who drank alcohol in the past year has a potentially hazardous drinking pattern, with men (32%) more likely to drink hazardously than women (17%) (Ministry of Health, 2017). The proportion of New Zealanders aged 15 years or more who drank alcohol in the past year was 79% in 2017/18 (Ministry of Health, 2018).
    The alcohol industry has no scruples about health, on the contrary they actively seek to foster addiction, to sell their product. The recent appearance of Alcopops was a successful attempt at making unpleasant tasting ethanol palatable to youth in the guise of a familiar sweet fizzy drink. Uncontrolled capitalists enrich themselves by selling children poison in pretty bottles.

  5. An interesting follow-up comment on Marxmail re the article:

    “Here in South Africa, the core poli-econ of wine story – and critique of
    the industry that employs about 120 000 workers – would be the taste of
    super-exploitation. In one institute I occasionally lecture at in
    Stellenbosch, there is a pre-school and primary school for children of
    nearby farmworkers. They deal with a roughly 10% fetal alcohol spectrum
    disorder, and you can imagine how debilitating that can be. The old ‘dop
    system’ of payments to farmworkers in kind, not in cash, is now illegal.
    But it happens, still.”

    (The commenter, btw, says he drinks up to 21 glasses of wine a week himself and is sympathetic to Dave W’s position!)

    My own view is that I gathered the science says some wine drinking is goo for your health. However, I’m impressed by the evidence on marshals so may have to rethink that. Still, my wine consumption is less than one a month, maybe 6 glasses a year. And that’s always when I’m roun at friens’ houses for tea or they come to mine and bring wine.

    I am, however, a devourer of coffee. I probably drink way too much of it. Not sure what the scientific consensus is on coffee drinking. . .

    I have also just shifted from tea-bags to leaf tea, although it is bizarrely much more costly than teabags and there is very little leaf tea in supermarkets these days.

    I guess I should just drink more water – although the quality of tap water here seems to have deteriorated a lot in recent years. We’re screwed every way uner capitalism!

    Phil F

  6. I love the fact that all subjects are open to discussion on Red Line. After discussing alcohol, let’s discuss tea! Phil, I think the reason loose leaf tea costs so much more is that it’s higher quality tea. Tea bags use the dregs, pieces, and “sweepings.” When I drink tea-bag tea, I can’t really tell what kind of tea I’m drinking. When I drink loose leaf tea, it’s easier for me to discern the particular tea — and I enjoy the taste a lot more. The British ruling class kept the price of loose leaf tea down to less than it wanted to charge (HUGE profits in tea a couple of centuries ago) because the working class rebelled over soaring tea prices. Once the tea bag was invented, the lower-grade tea was made available at a price the working class could afford, while loose leaf prices probably soared even higher. We are indeed screwed every way under capitalism. (Can we drink to that?)

  7. Thanks for that Barbara. Hey, if you ever fancy writing an article on tea an capitalism for Redline, that would be great too!

    I didn’t realise the tea that went into teabags was such poor quality – I was thinking too literally that with teabags you’ve got the socially necessary labour that goes into the bags, so it should be more pricey. Didn’t think about the quality – thus more socially necessary labour going into the leaf tea.

    Fascinating how we have shitty tea for the masses and nice tea for the middle and upper classes. Here loose leaf tea costs about 50% more than teabags in supermarkets and teabags take up about 95% of the space taken up by tea on supermarket shelves. You have to really search up close to find the tiny wee pocket/s of loose leaf tea.

    Phil F

  8. So the discussion raises an interesting point. Marxists love to talk about contradictions. That is, the dialectics in nature and science, and, of course, class society. But when talking about lifestyle choices, the contradictions are often swept under the covers. To wit:

    It is very possible that some substances have both good and bad effects. Wine can cause cancer in a few people and be healthy for others, or, be both at the same time: cause cancer here, but be very healthy for one’s heart, there, in the same person.

    Coffee, that Phil raised, I drink two cups of home brewed coffee every day. 7 days a week. Now, coffee, perhaps more than wine, is cancer indicated in some cases (against, statistically irrelevant we think for now, though, there are other issues such as renal issues). But my *doctor* prescribed me a coffee intake because of my asthma. Caffeine raises one’s heart rate by 5 to 10%. This is excellent for anyone with asthma or COPD as it allows more O2 in the blood to get to your vital organs quicker. This is why risk assessment, so avoided by these studies, is important. Caffeine is both good and bad for a person drinking it (in tea, as well as coffee, depending on the tea — when I do drink tea, it’s always camomile, which is caffeine free).

    I think this is true for most health warnings. Moderation is *always* the key. If we want to get our knickers in a bunch, we’d have to talk about eating red meat!

    • OK – my two cents worth: Red meat – the best food for humans! 99% of animals are edible to humans, 99% of plants are poisonous. Coffee – mostly cost neutral – you’d have to drink a lot to have harm. Alcohol – I’m not sure how strong the data is on the effects as you can’t do randomised control studies and there are so many confounders. I’d rather die of a heart attack than cancer, so alcohol probably doesn’t help with that. A few glasses of wine are so enjoyable I figure it’s worth any risk.

  9. Marxists love to talk about contradictions. My impetus for the original article was being struck by the contradiction between the burgeoning wine industry and the rapidly mounting evidence of alcohol’s harm to all parts of the human body.

  10. I was watching an intresting ocumentary that was on TV1 on Monday night on healthy eating/healthy food. It showed that most of the ‘superfoods’ are cons. They’re niche marketing rather than having any benefit beyond the much cheaper everyday alternatives. Call something a ‘superfood’ and you can basically triple or quadruple the price – ie a massive discrepancy between value and price (in the Marxist sense of value). Strawberries turned out to be slightly better than goja berries and cost 1/6 the price (the doco was English). Common pearl barley was at least as good, maybe slightly better, than quinoa. When it came to hydration, milk rated the best, slightly above water. But water was very good and coffee was fine (not as good as water, but not all that far behind).

    In terms of breakfast, banana and yoghurt was not great and nor was wholegrain cereal. Bacon and eggs was well ahead of both of those. Bacon and eggs were better than wholegrain cereal and fruit/yoghurt for blood/sugar levels and also for filling you up – people who had bacon and eggs for breakfast tended to snack less and also eat less for lunch. People who ate wholegrain cereals and fruit/yoghurt for breakfast tended to snack more an ned more for lunch.

    I knew that bacon an eggs would be a way better option that wholegrain cereal and fruit/yoghurt, because I had looked into this before shifting myself to a low-carb regime. Interestingly, the programme wasn’t about carbs at all; it was just about healthy eating and how ‘health foods’ are often shite an have m assively inflated prices. (When the presenter went round the supermarket with a nutritionist, she found the bullshit ‘superhealhy’ foods in her basket cost *six times* as much as the cheaper, everyay alternatives which were every bit as good (in some cases better). So, although it wasn’t about carbs, it was great to see my bacon + eggs reigned supreme over fruit/yoghurt and wholegrains. I haven’t eaten breakfast cereals, including wholegrain cereals, for almost a year, an I have more energy and feel a lot better as a result. Also I snack a lot less during the day, with my meaty/eggy breakfast. Some days I don’t even feel like breakfast and just have a coffee with some cream in it (cream being massively lower-carb than milk).

    The presenter also did a trick that I recall Penn and Teller doing years ago. They gave tap water to some people an told them it was bottled special water from the Amazonian rain forest. The people who rank it said how ‘pure’ it tasted and were really praising about it. They were shocked when Penn and Teller told them they’d actually got it from a hose at an outside tap.

    The presenter got tap water from the sink and put it in very attractive bottles with a n ice logo an catchy words down the side and took it to a yoga class. They all thought it was great and said they’d buy it as opposed to cheaper bottled water varieities. They were shocked to find it was just regular old tap water.

    The power of advertising really is extraordinary. So I can see Don’s concerns about the liquor industry and selling poison to people to make profits. But I do wonder whether the jury is in on wine. I don’t drink alcohol much at all – by far the biggest drinking year of my life was my last year at high school, when I went to parties almost every Saturday night and usually got drunk. I survivie, although most of the Mondays of that year at school were pretty blurry.

    By the time I left school, I’d got most of my adolescent drinking out of my system and developed a dislike for being around drunken teenagers – and drunken adults. Later, I lived in Ireland, and that put me off alcohol even more.

    But I also dislike wowserism. So I’m not quite sure where that leaves me. . .

    Phil F

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