Monday, 15 February 2010

Some Quite Interesting facts about alcohol

The Telegraph is reporting the latest government scheme for cutting the nation's drinking. There will be health warnings on all bottles of wine and beer, including "the recommended safe daily alcohol consumption limits for men and women" and how many the product contains, and the logo of anti-booze "charity" Drink Aware. The government are also thinking about introducing a minimum price per unit, we learn. It's a thoroughly bad idea, both in practice and principle, but the way things are going it's beginning to look inevitable. Like an increasing proportion of public policy, alcohol has come to be viewed by officialdom almost exclusively as a health issue, in which arguments based on medical costs - genuine or spurious - trump everything.

Like most such reports, this one reads like an undigested press-release. It's full of the usual hair-rasising facts and figures, such as this:

Figures have also suggested that about 10 million people in England are risking their health by drinking more than the recommended maximum amount — which is two to three units a day for women, (about one large glass of wine) and three to four for men (two pints of beer). Studies have suggested that many of those most at risk are middle-class wine drinkers who do not understand how many units they consume.

Coincidentally, the subject of alcohol units cropped up on Saturday's QI. It's not a programme with a reputation of being a haven of libertarian dissent - we have Top Gear for that - so I was amazed to hear the following discussion:

Stephen Fry: This recommended daily allowance business is very interesting. In Britain it's 21 units, whatever that means, a week... in Poland it's 12 and a half units, a tiny amount, but in Canada it's 23 3/4, in America 24 1/2, in South Africa and Denmark 31.5 and guess where it's 35, Barry.

Barry Humphries: Orstrahlia

Fry: Orstrahlia Fair.... But, our limit is 21. There was a study which found that if you drunk between 21 and 30 you would belong to a group which had the lowest mortality rate in Britain. So in other words we're being recommended to drink too little alcohol for our health. In fact, it has been worked out that you'd have to drink 63 units a week, or a bottle of wine a day, to face the same death risk as a teetotaller.

Bill Bailey: I think you'll find most people are kind of making it up themselves, instinctively

Fry: Well the odd thing is, the guy who actually came up with it has admitted they made the number up. He said, well we had to say something so we said that.

Alan Davies: Is the assumption not that there are other lifestyle factors associated with the sort of person that likes a bit of wine?

Fry: Having an accident is the main problem, obviously. But none the less, just statistically and actuarially you are likely to live longer if you drink between 21 and 30 units.

Davies: If you're a social animal you're less stressed...

Fry: It may well be that the physical affect on the body is actually beneficial in moderate amounts.

(The researchers seem to have been looking at this report in The Times from October 2007.)

It would be nice to find this sort of rigorous analysis on the Today programme, or TV news bulletins.