Monday, 21 February 2011

The New Puritans - in which leading doctors just make stuff up

This morning while I was sat in Departures at Heathrow Airport, I chanced to watch so of the TV News. And it featured at love-in between the interviewer and a doctor of some description who was intoning the official doom-and-gloom line on drinking. Apparently, we’re drinking ourselves to death:

Up to 250,000 people could die because of alcohol over the next 20 years unless ministers take strong action to tackle Britain's chronic drink problems, leading doctors are warning.

The prediction comes in edition of the Lancet medical journal by three senior experts on alcohol, two of whom are advising the coalition on how to reduce drink-related harm.

In a scathing critique of the government's approach to alcohol, the trio accuse ministers of pursuing policies that will make no difference to the soaring rates of drink-related liver disease.

Not only is this nonsense – the 250,000 figure is a random, unspecified and unsupported figure thrown out by these prohibitionists. The true figure from the study – in an absolutely worst case scenario where deaths from liver-related conditions double every five years – is 77,000 “extra deaths” (do note that this is the gap between a reduction of 22,000 and an increase of 55,000). And there’s nothing to suggest that this would be the case!

The most likely scenario is somewhere between these two extremes – still a problem but not something meriting dramatic and draconian government intervention. It represents at worst 3,800 deaths each year, still a lot but hardly epidemic proportions!

However, we should take the authors at face value – UK deaths from alcohol-related liver problems are 11/100,000 which is higher than in other places (the news reports cited Sweden and New Zealand – in the latter case the size of population may well make the figures unreliable). This is a problem and suggests that, as a nation, we are not doing enough to support people with a drink problem rather than there being a general problem with drinking. This level of mortality could reflect other factors – the doctors being useless at diagnosis, poor facilities, lack of organs for transplant and so forth – I don’t know and our ban-fan doctors aren’t saying.

Rather than punishing people who aren’t a problem – moderate drinkers (and indeed some fairly heavy drinkers) – perhaps we should look at policies and strategies to respond better to genuine problems with alcohol? Indeed, so far as the majority are concerned current policies on alcohol are working: (unless you’re a publican of course):

“Since 2005, UK alcohol consumption per head has fallen by almost 11 per cent. Far from being too close to government, all alcohol producers have faced huge increases in tax and regulation in recent years.

“For beer, duty has increased by 26 per cent since 2008. This has been hugely damaging, and the government has plans for large increases in March, which would further hurt the brewing and pub sector on which a million UK jobs depend.

“We already have the some of the highest alcohol tax levels in the world. Raising UK taxes further would be a burden on the vast majority who drink sensibly, and provide a potential bonanza for bootleggers and the booze cruise.

“We need better awareness and measures targeted at the minority who misuse alcohol - and the industry is committed to work with the government to achieve this.”

The impact of dramatic price increases won’t solve the problem either. Making alcohol is pretty straightforward and almost impossible to police – some fruit and some sugar and hey presto alcohol! And if you’re an alcoholic you’re not bothered about quality control, impurities and strength!

In truth these authors aren’t concerned doctors at all but hardcore advocates of prohibition and their prescription for the evils of alcohol is to remove ease of access for all of us rather than to deal with the psychology that leads to alcohol abuse and related problems.


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