Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - January 2008
Unrealistic official guidelines on safe drinking levels have no scientific basis
RECENTLY there have been alarming reports about the high proportion of people drinking at levels that are claimed to be potentially hazardous to health, and the smaller but still substantial number drinking at levels that are actively harmful. “Hazardous” is defined, for a man, as 21 units of alcohol or more a week, “harmful” as 50 units or more. But what do those figures represent in terms of, say, a popular 4.5% ABV beer such as Pedigree or Old Speckled Hen? 21 units is a mere 9 pints a week, which in many people’s eyes would count as pretty light drinking, while 50 units is just 3 pints a day which a moderate pub regular would take in his stride. So are vast numbers of people who don’t come anywhere close to the typical image of a heavy boozer greatly underestimating the health risks associated with alcohol and unwittingly drinking themselves into an early grave?
The honest answer is no. These so-called “safe limits” were dreamed up by scientists in 1987 in response to a government request to come up with some figures. They were essentially plucked out of the air with no firm basis in scientific research. Since then, various studies have contradicted these figures. One showed that the healthiest group of men of all were those drinking between 21 and 30 units a week - and thus at a level officially defined as “hazardous” - while another found that men had to drink more than an average of 63 units a week before facing the same health risk as those drinking nothing at all. Yet, despite all the weight of contradictory evidence, nothing has been done to change the official guidelines.
In reality, people’s body size and metabolism varies so much that it is impossible to define a one-size-fits-all level of “safe” drinking. 21 units a week may well be a kind of lowest common denominator below which alcohol consumption is highly unlikely to have any adverse health effects. But, for most adults, particularly those otherwise in good health, drinking rather more than that is unlikely to do much if any harm either. And it is also wrong to suggest that consumption at anything more than an optimal level will result in your state of health dropping off a cliff. We’re constantly told that we should eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but if you don’t, it doesn’t mean you’ll contract scurvy.
Everybody knows that regular heavy drinking is likely to do long-term damage to health. But setting consumption guidelines that many will see as unrealistically low, and which have no scientific basis, is likely to work against the encouragement of moderation in drinking and undermine the credibility of all official messages.
Acceptance of these guidelines by the drinks industry is giving a hostage to fortune
IT IS ALSO DISAPPOINTING how drink producers seem prepared to go along with this nonsense and put these figures on labels. This obviously shows a distinct degree of hypocrisy, as they know very well that without large numbers of people routinely ignoring the guidelines their business would be greatly reduced. What are we to make of a 500 ml crown-cork bottle of 8.2% ABV vintage cider, with a label saying it contains 4.1 units of alcohol, but responsible drinkers don't exceed 3 to 4 per day? But it also reveals a cowardly reluctance to actually stand up and defend the drinks industry, which is especially regrettable given how unscientific the figures are. At a time of mounting anti-alcohol hysteria, the unquestioning acceptance of these guidelines is giving a dangerous hostage to fortune.