January 2012

Falling Off a Cliff

The risks of exceeding the official alcohol guidelines are too often greatly exaggerated

THE HOUSE of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee are currently carrying out an inquiry into the official government guidelines on alcohol consumption. Even though these were effectively plucked out of the air with no proper scientific basis, it is perhaps asking a bit much for them to be raised, although a move to restate them as weekly rather than daily limits might better reflect real-world drinking patterns.

However, a major problem with these guidelines is that, all too often, they are presented not as an ideal but as an absolute upper limit, above which the drinker falls off a cliff of risk. In fact, as pointed out by CAMRA in their submission to the inquiry, even taking the figures at face value, you need to exceed them by a considerable margin before there is anything more than a slight increase in the risk level. There is a wide gap between the recommended limit and the point where drinking is likely to have a severe health impact.

The way they are often presented, though, is on a par with suggesting that only eating four portions of fruit and veg a day will inevitably lead to contracting scurvy. It also results in skewed priorities in public policy, with health campaigns often giving the impression of trying to make responsible people drinking 30 or 40 units a week feel guilty, while in effect washing their hands of those drinking at genuinely dangerous levels.

An inconvenient truth of the statistics is that you have to drink around three times the official guidelines before your health risk reaches that experienced by total abstainers. The anti-drink lobby often try to claim that the figures are distorted by the inclusion of people who have had to give up drinking for medical reasons but, even allowing for this, there is still a huge body of evidence that moderate drinking is much better for you than abstention. It may simply be the case that moderate drinkers are more relaxed and less uptight, but the strong correlation is undeniable. This is a major problem for those wanting to promote the message that there is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol. But no doubt they are working on coming up with more dodgy figures to get round it.

Never Too Late to Stop

Giving up drink may not help you live to 100, but it will certainly feel like it

AND IT GETS even worse as you get older. A recent report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists says that the existing alcohol consumption guidelines need to be “drastically reduced” for people over 65. Apparently they should drink no more than one and a half “units” of alcohol a day, so even going to the pub and having a pint of bitter is bad news.

They point out that some older people turn to drink as a way of coping with changes in life like retirement and bereavement, or feelings of boredom, loneliness and depression. No doubt this is true, but the same can happen at any stage of life, and the vast majority of pensioners don’t seem to succumb. In my experience, most older people settle down to a regular routine of moderate drinking and rarely if ever overdo it. They have learned the difference between “just enough” and “too much”.

And, for many, a regular couple of drinks with friends in the pub is one of the few pleasures in life they’re still able to enjoy. Telling them not to drink will just lead to misery and social isolation. It’s also not going to cut much ice telling someone in their eighties that having that extra half-pint is going to reduce their life expectancy. Perhaps the doctors should concentrate on people with genuine drink problems rather than trying to cultivate anxiety amongst those engaged in normal behaviour.

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