Saturday, 7 March 2015

Drinking every day isn't the problem, drinking too much is the problem

And I'm not getting into the occult subject of what constitutes "too much". I would observe however that those who saw Top Gear demonstrate how far off  "safe braking distance" is from reality will understand just how much recommended levels of alcohol consumption 'err on the side of caution'.

Some research has been issued that shows how, for most people, drinking (and especially binge drinking - however defined) rises from adolescence to the mid-20s and then gradually declines as people get older. However, there's another change - as people age they drink less but they drink more regularly. Instead of going out on the lash with the mates on Friday and Saturday, men drink every day. And apparently this is a bad thing:

“I wasn't shocked to see that alcohol volume changes over the life course, but the high proportion of older men drinking daily is a bit alarming.

“It raises concerns that they are becoming dependent on alcohol and there are risks in this age group mixing alcohol with medications.” 

So says the person responsible for the study. There's also a hint (not referenced just baldly stated) of  "warnings that drinking every day can increase the risk of health problems associated with alcohol." Now while I'm happy to agree that consuming large amounts of booze every day - or even six days out of seven - isn't good for your health, I suspect that there's nothing to support the contention that the mere fact of drinking every day is bad for your health (the NHS helpfully puts the 'risk' at 3-4 units - less than two pints - for men and  2-3 units - a medium glass of wine - for women).

What we see here are two assumptions - firstly that not drinking is healthier than drinking (we know this isn't true) and secondly that these low levels of daily consumption are a risk (they're not). All of this fits with the temperance agenda that dominates thinking about alcohol and health. What we see is a study showing how alcohol consumption falls with age resulting in most people settling down to a comfortable and safe relationship with booze presented by a lazy journalist and a temperance-addicted researcher as something of a problem.

We really don't have a major problem with alcohol in the UK. Overwhelmingly - even using the temperance lobbies super safe recommended levels - the population doesn't abuse alcohol. What we do have is a group of people who have a problem with alcohol - not the scary "drinking at dangerous levels" of the press release from Alcohol Concern but genuinely with a problem. There are a lot of people with this problem - Alistair Campbell refers to 1.6 million in this article which is probably about right. This is 2-3% of the population - about one-in-thirty people - so merits our attention. But the solution is to focus on those people rather than run endless scare stories that merely act to further reduce the consumption of moderate drinkers rather than reduce the harm that comes from heavy drinking.


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