It was fantastically satisfying to see the front page splash in The Times declare what I’ve been saying for years – that the government’s “safe drinking guidelines” of 21 units of alcohol for men and 14 for women a week have no basis in fact, and were literally made up on the spot with no evidence to support them 20 years ago, solely because the “experts” thought they ought to be saying something rather than nothing.
To quote The Times:
Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal and a member of the college’s working party on alcohol, told The Times yesterday that the figures were not based on any clear evidence … “David Barker was the epidemiologist on the committee and his line was that ‘We don’t really have any decent data whatsoever. It’s impossible to say what’s safe and what isn’t’. And other people said, ‘Well, that’s not much use.’ … So the feeling was that we ought to come up with something. So those limits were really plucked out of the air. They weren’t really based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee.”
On that basis, as The Times says, public health care policy, and private advice by doctors to individuals, has been conducted ever since, with the figures treated as if they were stone-hard, incontrovertible fact, wheeled out again for the latest report that claimed the middle classes are the new danger drinkers. To quote The Times again:
Professor Mark Bellis, director of the North West Public Health Observatory, which produced this week’s study, felt able to say that anyone exceeding the limits was “drinking enough to put their health at significant risk”. That a host of epidemiological studies had filled the intervening years with evidence to the contrary seemed not to matter one jot.”
The World Health Organisation’s limits are considerably more liberal than those the British government seeks to impose on its people. The Times again:
The WHO’s International Guide for Monitoring Alcohol Consumption and Related Harm set out drinking ranges that qualified people as being at low, medium or high-risk of chronic alcohol-related harm. For men, less than 35 weekly units was low-risk, 36 to 52.5 was medium-risk and above 53 was high-risk. Women were low-risk below 17.5 units, medium between 18 and 35 and high above 36.
Indeed, the evidence is strong that alcohol consumption keeps you alive:
in 1993, a study of 12,000 middle-aged, male doctors led by Sir Richard Doll and a team at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, found that the lowest mortality rates – lower even than teetotallers – were among those drinking between 20 and 30 units of alcohol each week. The level of drinking that produced the same risk of death as that faced by a teetotaller was 63 units a week, or roughly a bottle of wine a day.
By 1994, five studies had been published which showed that moderate amounts of alcohol gave some degree of protection against heart disease. A year later, scientists at the Institute for Preventive Medicine in Copenhagen, who studied 13,000 men and women over 12 years, found that drinking more than half a bottle of wine a day – 50 units a week – cut the risk of premature death by half.
The fact that the current “safe” drinking guidelines were invented in 1987 with no medical evidence to justify them is, obviously, a 20-year-old story, and has been in the public domain for at least a dozen years: Andrew Barr, in Drink: An Informal Social History. published back in 1995, quoted Richard Smith saying (p321) exactly the same as he told The Times for yesterday’s front page: when it came to setting the “safe” drinking limits, “we just pulled them out of the air.” But because the Department of Health continued shouting about how everybody had to keep to the “safe” limits, newspapers accepted unquestioningly that these “safe” limits were real.
So why do those bastards keep lying to us about what “safe” levels of alcohol are? My personal guess is that too many politicians – and members of public health committees – are in the game because they want to control others, and they associate drinking with loss of control, and therefore want to stop it: except they know, after the failure of prohibition in the United States, that stopping people drinking is impossible, and so they try to make us feel as guilty as possible about one of life’s best pleasures.