BMJ news release on alcohol & arthritis may have contributed to misleading coverage

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Around the globe today, there are misleading headlines about a study in the BMJ, “Long term alcohol intake and risk of rheumatoid arthritis in women: a population based cohort study.

Alcohol ‘lowers arthritis risk’ for women – The Independent

Alcohol ‘lowers arthritis risk’ – The Press Association

Rheumatoid arthritis risk reduced by moderate alcohol consumption –

Alcohol reduces risk of arthritis: study – The

Frequent tipple ‘halves arthritis risk’ – Irish Independent

Drinking wine can keep arthritis at bay, scientists tell women – Scotsman

Drink Thrice a Week to Halve Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis – HeartZine


Each headline used a definitive statement of a causal connection:  cuts/lowers/reduces/halves risk or some variation thereof.  And each is inaccurate when applied to the study in question.

The researchers simply concluded this: “Moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis.”

A statistical association, not proof of cause-and-effect.  And that’s all you can accurately say.

And what may have kicked it all off?  A BMJ news release:

BMJ Press Release

Moderate drinking may reduce risk of rheumatoid arthritis

Three drinks per week can halve the risk of developing the condition

In that news release, there was not one mention of the limitations of such an observational study – no emphasis on association versus causation.

HealthDay ended its story appropriately and accurately:  “Although the study found an association between alcohol and rheumatoid arthritis risk, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.”

Maybe more media around the globe would have gotten it right if the BMJ news release had helped them a bit.  We’ve written about flawed BMJ news releases on observational studies before:

We refer the BMJ news release writers to our primer, “Does the Language Fit the Evidence?  Association Versus Causation.”

Journals could help lift all ships – or they can (and sometimes do) help us all drown in a daily tsunami of global miscommunication about health news.

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Patricia Hartman

July 12, 2012 at 7:10 am

This is only one example of the current trend: do a statistical analysis and publish it, without any real effort to explain or validate the “association”. Thus Vitamin D deficiency is now associated with (and reported in lay press as cause of) asthma, heart disease, etc etc. Is this another symptom of publish or perish?