Each glass shortens lifespan as much as a cigarette

Nick Cohen, over in the Guardian, is busy telling us all that we must drink less and that Scotland raising the minimum price of alcohol (hitting poor people’s cheap cider and bargain booze, but not directly affecting craft lagers, appellation d’origine contrôlée wines and artisan gin) is a Good Thing because the industry makes its profits by exploiting addicts who are drinking themselves to death en masse.

It is a truth universally unacknowledged that, like drugs cartels, the drink industry makes most of its money from addicts. It thrives on hooked customers, who put boosting the brewers’ profits before their and their families’ health and happiness. Sixty per cent of alcohol sales – worth £27bn a year in England – are to “increasing risk” drinkers taking more than 21 units of alcohol a week, in the case of men (about 10 pints or two bottles of wine), and “harmful” drinkers taking more than 50… Twenty one units (14 for women) does not sound much in my world of journalism, but it is a sign of people who cannot go a day without a shot of their drug, which is as good a definition of an addiction as any.

Now, there’s a question there about who decided what that “risk” was and how large it was. Cohen gets into the Salvation Army-style temperance-league apocalyptic warnings about the horrors of heavy drinking and warns that by the time you’re knocking back fifty units a week (for men, thirty-five for women) you’re undergoing “full degeneration”.

But is that based on any firm evidence? One interesting study, reassuring to the toper, can be found here, which among other things makes the gentle point that since we either under-report what we consume, or we pour away half of the booze we buy undrunk, planning policy on what we admit to consuming may not be accurate. More generally, though, do we have any historical evidence of groups whose alcohol consumption was documented with any confidence, to see how they fared?

Actually, we do, at least as a floor: we know the quantity of the Royal Navy’s spirit ration, which until 1823 was based on half a pint of rum (284 millilitres in foreign) per man per day. We also know its minimum strength, since it was tested by trying to ignite gunpowder soaked in it: it had to be over 57% alcohol by volume (“proof strength”) to pass. That’s sixteen units of alcohol – not per week, but per day – or north of a hundred units a week, just for the issued ration before sailors bought any extra from the purser. (No wonder Jack Tar was jolly back in those days!)

Drunken Sailors
We don’t do this any more. Well, not very often.

But clearly, we would expect a body of men consuming such suicidally destructive quantities of booze to be physical wrecks, raddled by cirrhosis and disease? As Dr James Lind (he of the discovery that citrus fruits were a sovereign remedy for scurvy) put it,

It is an observation, I think, worthy of record that fourteen thousand persons, pent up in ships, should continue, for six or seven months, to enjoy a better state of health upon the watery element, than it can well be imagined so great a number of people would enjoy, on the most healthful spot of ground in the world.

(For context, around this point the Navy won the battle of Quiberon Bay, with twenty ships – who had less than one man sick per ship).

The ration was halved in 1823, and again in 1850, but for a hundred and twenty years until Black Tot Day in 1970, the Navy still issued nearly thirty units of alcohol a week to everyone on the lower deck (junior rates got theirs diluted, seniors got neat rum). Either folk were hardier back then, or Britannia managed to rule the waves and keep her sailors reasonably healthy despite being a pack of hopelessly addicted alcoholics.

Now, there’s no doubt that – leaving health issues aside – being drunk isn’t a positive in many situations, and that while “some booze” might not be bad, indeed might even be good, for you, there really is a point where “too much” is bad for your lifestyle and your health. But can we really, confidently, say that someone consuming 22 units of alcohol a week is a hopeless boozehound helplessly in thrall to the Demon Drink and measures must be taken to address this?

Because if not, are we making policy based on evidence, or on Puritanism?

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10 COMMENTS

  1. So much of the alcohol is sold to those who drink more? Well, I find you have to drink it otherwise it mounts up and you can’t find anywhere to store it.

    Of course it’s puritanism and I expect Snowdon will fillet this like a kipper.

  2. That was weird and unusually illogical from Nick. It would sort of sense if he was talking about sin taxes but he’s talking about minimum pricing and using profits as the cornerstone of his argument. Minimum pricing boosts the profits of the industry.

    And this statement was also strange.:

    “Minimum pricing does not target moderate drinkers but the 5% of, generally, but not exclusively, poor people, lost in addiction.”

    Um that’s like saying our carpet bombs were not targeted at the city but at 5% of where it would be justified to blow up. You’re targeting everyone because you’re hitting everyone deliberately. What Nick means is the 95% are the collateral damage he’s willing to incur.

  3. I find it hard to believe that we pour away 50% of the booze that we buy, in my house it is closer to 0%!
    (If it is going to me it is 0%, I sometimes have guests that also leave a bit because they come from South America and it is part of their culture to always waste some food/drink).

  4. It’s Puritanism… One of the dangers of letting the zealots define the agenda.

    Some years ago, as a result of an “internet argument” back in the days of usenet, I embarked on a bit of research on boozing and the effects thereof. What did I find?

    The “21 (or 28) units maximum” recommended by the BMA was made up on the spot to answer an enquiry from a “Times” journalist. Sir Richard Doll (he of the research showing the link between smoking and certain varieties of lung cancer) did similar work on alcohol and arrived at a recommended maximum of some 50 units per week. The Society of Actuaries found that a man needed to consume an average of 63 units per week in order to reduce his life-expectancy to that of a tea-totaller. A study published by the University Hospital of Chicago on really-heavy boozers (they were studying “winos”) found that, on average, physical damage to the liver etc only started to occur once consumption was in excess of 100 units per week.

    Therefore, I don’t take much notice of the “official” recommendations and continue to have two or three pints of decent bitter most days – which under the zealotry guidelines, I believe, makes me a “binge drinker”! Whereas, as any fule kno, binge-drinking involves knocking back twenty bottles of fluorescent jollop and later being found sprawled on the pavement in a pool of your own urine and vomit.

  5. With “the drink industry makes most of its money from addicts,” Cohen calls on us to see the argument as profiteers versus helpless victims. But “addiction” is a habit the “victim” cannot quit because he finds it more pleasant than the alternative. Tobacco is a special case because the substance itself delivers the unpleasantness in withdrawal. With booze, any unpleasantness is merely that of confronting one’s reality sober.

    So, no, I don’t buy the official recommendations, nor even the premise that longevity should be our one highest value. Certainly not as a basis for regulating the alcohol industry or setting prices for it. Nor any other government statistics of the Human Herd.

    PS – Yes, we are certainly making these decisions out of Puritanism. As with children’s sexuality, women’s bodies, utterances toward African Americans, LGBTQ “issues,” heritage sites, and use of swampland, policy is all about sacred ground and taboos rather than measurement (like, in a court of law) of actual harms done.

  6. Where do you get your S. Americans, David. The gaggle infest this house seem incapable of throwing anything away. Half the fridge seems to be taken up with odd left-overs from various meals, carefully preserved in cling, foil or plastic containers. So much so, they never seem to be able to find & eat any of them.
    But if there were any adverse effects to cheap booze, this’d be the place to find them. Bottle of vodka in the supermarket’s well under 4 quid. Carton wine’s around 75p a litre. Yet the only drunks seem to be the Jocksters, down for their package two weeks in the sun.

  7. Thinking back over the years, friends and relatives appear to have died whether or not they drank alcohol. For those whose life was arguably shortened because they drank excessively, a similar number died prematurely due to other causes – quite often by drawing the short straw in inheritable diseases. A couple of acquaintances endured a sad end because of their wayward past (alcohol was a symptom not the cause); two that lived saintly lives died years earlier. Have come to conclusion life’s a lottery, that we are born with tags that read ‘Dead at 50’ or ‘Dead at 95’ – and there’s little we can do about it.

  8. I drink the equivalent four bottles of wine a week, usually a bottle a night shared with my wife, plus sometimes a beer or two with friends.

    I defy anyone to be “addicted” at that level. I recently went three months “dry” and it was no problem at all. I never drink alone. I rarely drink during the day.

    If you’re addicted at that level then the problem isn’t the alcohol. It’s something else in your life.