Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - February 1999

* Another One for the Road? *

Over the Christmas period, Lancashire Police were offering 500 rewards for information leading to drink-driving convictions. No doubt some will say that anything which results in the conviction of offenders is justified, but might this not, in some circumstances, encourage offences rather than preventing them? Unless you witness an obvious drunk getting into a car, you can't tell with any degree of certainty whether someone is committing an offence unless you have observed them for some time. It's unlikely that anyone will be able to do this unless they are friends or relatives of the accused, and surely, in such a situation, friendly persuasion should come first, and informing behind people's backs should be an absolute last resort. But, given the prospect of a large reward, will people be tempted to inform rather than make any attempt to dissaude potential offenders, and even be encouraged to urge drivers to have extra drinks with the aim of securing a conviction? This is less a crime prevention measure than a dangerous and potentially fatal lottery.

* What's a Glass of Wine? *

I was listening recently to a piece on Radio 5 about the Health Education Authority's nannyish guidelines for safe drinking. They will now grudgingly admit that drinking a small amount will actually deliver some health benefits over drinking nothing at all, and they mentioned that the so-called safe maximum limit for women was two to three "units" (i.e. small drinks) a day. At this, presenter Annie Webster exclaimed "Well, three glasses of wine is actually quite a lot, isn't it!" You have to wonder whether these people live in nunneries and only come out to do radio shows, because, in the real world, that's a pretty modest level of consumption.

But anyone who imagines that a glass of wine contains only a single unit of alcohol is seriously mistaken. A unit represents 10 ml of alcohol, so for a small 125 ml glass to contain one unit it would have to have an alcoholic strength of no more than 8%, which is true only for the very lightest German wines. A much more typical glass of wine nowadays is 175 ml at 12 or 13%, and thus contains well over 2 units, or more than the alcohol in a pint of mild or ordinary bitter. So you may imagine you're being healthy sipping an elegant glass of Chardonnay rather than guzzling a pint of beer, but in reality you won't be reducing your alcohol intake, and neither will you be taking in any fewer calories.

* Limitless Confusion *

It's impossible to believe that the general public get any meaningful guidance from all this advice about "safe limits", particularly since it seems to change on a regular basis. Previously we were told that the maximum recommended "safe" limits of alcohol were 21 units a week for men and 14 for women, which may have been questionable science, but at least had the benefit of clarity. However, to tell people that they can drink 3 to 4 units a day if they are men, or 2 to 3 if they are women, is downright confusing, and will inevitably be interpreted as meaning the upper end of the scale. What they don't tell you, though, is that all this represents is the point on the graph where the health risks bottom out, and that you have to drink more than twice as much per week on a regular basis before the risks from drinking start to exceed those from not drinking at all.

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