Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - September 2006

* Two Nations *

Attitudes towards drinking are opening up a growing fault-line in society

Over the past year or so, we have had an unprecedented amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the risks of so-called binge-drinking and the danger posed to the health of the nation by the excessive consumption of alcohol. Now it canít be denied that drinking a bit less would be good for many people in Britain today. But those who are most likely to benefit from all this advice are the least likely to heed it. What we are seeing is those who already drink heavily continuing to do so in cheerful defiance of official warnings, while those whose drinking is already at very modest levels are panicked by all the scare stories into cutting down even further, or giving up entirely, and at the same time feeling guilty even about the occasional pint or glass of wine.

In a column last year I alluded to how official propaganda about the dangers of alcohol leads supposedly intelligent and streetwise people into frankly ludicrous over-caution about drinking. If you donít want a glass of wine or pint of beer, fair enough, nobody is forced to have a drink, but donít pretend this is because it will lead you inexorably to an early grave.

It is striking nowadays how at some social gatherings people look askance at a level of alcohol consumption that at others would seem untypically modest. We are becoming two nations marked by our tolerance (or lack of it) for alcohol, and it is less and less common to see the old-fashioned moderate social drinking actually taking place. People either drink nothing (or virtually nothing), or loads.

* Enough is Enough *

Sensible drinking guidelines will only be effective if seen as reasonable

A further issue is that the official advice given by the authorities, that men should normally drink no more than 4 units of alcohol a day, is completely out of line with the everyday experiences of large numbers of people. For many beers this is no more than a pint and a half, yet the bloke who just has a couple of pints is widely seen as the epitome of moderation, and to cast him as some kind of problem drinker will seem ridiculous to many. You have to wonder whether the people who put these guidelines together ever manage to descend from their ivory towers long enough to actually visit a pub on a Friday or Saturday night.

Surely it would be marginally more credible if the official advice for men were to say something like:

  1. You should not normally consume more than 28 units of alcohol in any one week
  2. You should not normally consume more than 8 units of alcohol in one session
  3. It is advisable to have at least one alcohol free day each week
This might be slightly more generous than a scientific optimum, but , as can be seen in many other areas of life, strict rules that are perceived as unrealistic are far less effective in moderating behaviour than more lenient ones that are viewed as reasonable and attainable.

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