The cardiologists who think you don't drink enough
Posted: January 16, 2013
Miroslav Pšenička, who founded the Old Beer Club in 1997 with two other physicians, maintains that drinking one to four half-liters of beer a day is beneficial to one's health, despite critics' claims to the contrary.
By Lubomír Sedlák
FOR THE POST
A reasonable daily dose of suds is better for your health than no suds at all, say members of the Old Beer Club, founded in 1997 by three doctors. These cardiologists are generous enough to define a reasonable quantity as at least one half-liter glass a day of 5 percent ABV beer, but not more than four pints.
The Old Beer Club was founded by cardiologists Miroslav Pšenička, Simon Jirát and Petr Mareček from Prague 2's General University Hospital. As its founders, the trio have been the Old Beer Club's presidents since day one. (Jirát now works as a cardiologist in Cologne, Germany: "He has a good job there, but I think he wouldn't go to a country which wouldn't also have excellent beer," Pšenička says.)
The doctors had their epiphany 15 years ago, when they bought a 25-liter keg of beer to celebrate a colleague's 50th birthday. Party plans were scrapped, though, when Václav Klaus, at that time the prime minister, arrived at the hospital for a surprise visit. The trio set aside the pony keg to greet the politician and instead drank most of the beer, or almost all of it, the next day, just between the three of them, and so began a medical movement, says Pšenička, who was at that time the head of the VFN's coronary unit.
Since then, the club has consistently had 30 to 40 members. About half of them are doctors, and most of the others are people who work as hospital support staff such as orderlies, but there is also, for instance, a lawyer and a developer, because the club's full members can bring guests along. There is one notable and anachronistic exception to the semi-open door policy.
"We don't accept any women," Pšenička says with a grin. "They would distract us, especially after we have had more than one beer."
Jan Veselý, the director of the Czech Beer and Malt Association, says none of his worldwide counterparts has heard of such a club in their own countries. Pšenička wouldn't know whether a similar organization might exist elsewhere: No one from the Old Beer Club has gone to the lengths of doing a search on the Web.
The club's annual meetings always take place at the Klášter brewery near Mnichovo Hradiště, some 70 kilometers northeast of Prague. Here, they award people who have in the past year done something positive for Czech beer but also "punish members who have sinned," for instance by publicly demonstrating "inexcusable ignorance" of this alcoholic beverage. The "sinner" takes an examination in which he answers questions that in various forms relate to beer.
Besides the annual official get-together, club members also visit various breweries throughout the year. During the club's existence, they have undertaken almost 100 such trips, including several to Budějovický Budvar and Plzeňský Prazdroj, although they have never been to the Staropramen brewery based right here in Prague. They always drink the unfiltered, unpasteurized version on tap.
Not every doctor in town wants to join this club, however. Karel Nešpor, head of the addiction treatment department at Prague's Bohnice psychiatric hospital, calls the health claims a downright lie. "Even one half-liter of such beer, not talking about several glasses, leads to lower self-control and a higher risk of injury, not least because the inhibitive effect of hops makes one sleepy," he warns. Then he links the fact that Czech Republic has the world's highest consumption of beer per capita and also among the highest occurrences of colon cancer.
Though moderate drinking has potential positive cardiovascular effects, it does increase other risks - among them cancer. There is an especially strong link between breast cancer and alcohol, and for high-risk women the dangers of even a single daily drink might be greater than any potential cardiovascular benefits. Different doctors bring different biases, and they can differ in a personally and professionally informed manner on the issue.
Pšenička will point out, for example, the studies that suit him, cherry-picking research from over the years in, say, The Lancet or The New England Journal of Medicine that found that moderate alcohol intake led to decreased coronary disease or strokes. "That is an outcome of major importance because in developed countries, as many as 60 percent of their inhabitants actually die from these two things," Pšenička says.
And Nešpor, of course, disagrees, citing other research. "Alcohol in general raises your blood pressure and causes arrhythmia," he says, citing Russia as an example of extremely high per-capita alcohol consumption and among the world's highest rates of heart disease. Nešpor also refers to a study undertaken by five researchers from the University of California San Francisco published in 2007 in the Annals of Epidemiology journal that found that people who don't drink aren't any more at risk of heart problems for their abstinence than those who do so moderately.
Nešpor also has a problem with other doctors who advocate or even acknowledge alcohol. One such person is Tamara Starnovská, a nutrition therapist who at a press conference organized by the Czech Beer and Malt Association stressed that people should consume at least 3 liters of liquids daily. When one of the journalists asked how much of this beer could account for, she said 1 liter. "Alcohol," Nešpor says, "is not a good source of fluids for the human body because it makes you urinate more often."
Nešpor is convinced that if someone in the Czech Republic is propagating beer, which does not suffer for lack of endorsement here, it is all simply marketing by the local alcohol industry and has nothing to do with health. "We should be asking who is financing this club, including its three presidents, and what freebies such as meals in restaurants or even gifts the members receive," Nešpor says.
Pšenička brushes off the notion that the Old Beer Club is a marketing institution. Mostly. "We are not financed by anybody, and during all our trips to breweries, the members must pay for everything themselves, the only exception being the beer," he explains.
The cardiologist also stands by his claim that between 20 and 40 grams of alcohol (i.e. one to two glasses of a 5 percent ABV lager) and at the most 80 grams does not harm one's health and is in fact helpful. "The fact is that whatever medicinal problem you look at, there are always contradictory views as well as contradictory results of various studies, but, in this particular case, our club's arguments are, according to my mind, simply stronger that those of Mr. Nešpor," Pšenička says. He considers the addictions specialist a "militant teetotaller" trying to achieve the impossible. Alcohol, especially beer, Pšenička points out, has been around since the Sumerians, some 4,000 years before Christ.
Pšenička himself drinks the one to four beers he recommends, but only every other day. "When I cycle through the countryside at weekends, I moreover go for a desítka (10º), which has an alcohol content of just about 4 percent," he says. He never buys bottled beer, always sticking to draft. His favorite pub in Prague is U Šumavy, which is close to the hospital and where they tap his preferred lager, Budějovický Budvar. Sometimes, though, he feels like having the more bitter Plzeňský Prazdroj, in which case he goes either to the Nusle district and orders a glass at U Bansethů or to Old Town, in particular to U Zlatého tygra.
Can he also drink beer on shift at the hospital? "No," Pšenička says, "of course not, although I would very much like to do so." He adds that he would be permitted nonalcoholic beer, but he only drinks that when he has to drive.
Lubomír Sedlák can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org