Booze & health

In my recent collection of mini-blogs entitled Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, I wrote a short piece about alcohol, which went thus:

It always struck me as odd and hypocritical that the government is keen to tax and encourage the consumption of items that are proven to be dangerous to our health, notably alcohol and tobacco (albeit with restrictions to prevent us over-indulging in one and doing so in public for the other), while banning other socially taken substances on the grounds that they are harmful to our health.  Most of us enjoy a tipple and occasionally having a skinful, while tut-tutting privately about binge drinking and drink-driving.

Always more complicated than that, of course.  I have a friend who is a dried-out alcoholic, but such is his addiction to pub culture that he still visits pubs but drinks pints of lime and soda.  If you’re out with him the rounds come thick and fast, but if you’re drinking beers you will be well on the way to oblivion while he stays disappointingly sober.  At least you have a designated driver that way!

This seems a subject worthy of expansion into a longer blog, so here it is.  Looking at government guidelines on drinking (see here) you’d think we were a nation of alcoholics, since there are very many people who consume vastly more than the recommended daily allowance and think their intake to be moderate or even to improve health (given the beneficial effects of red wine, say.)

This is what the Change 4 Life programme tells us:

After a long day, many of us like to unwind with a nice glass of something. But it’s funny how drink can sneak up on us. The odd glass in the evening can quickly become two or three regular glasses, most evenings.  The trouble is that drink sneaks up on bodies too – it can give our organs a hard time. Regularly drinking over the guidelines can lead to serious health problems, from liver damage to a greater risk of getting cancer or having a heart attack. And don’t forget that alcohol also contains calories, so it can help to give you a bit of a spare tyre.

Granted there will always be people who choose not to imbibe in the poisonous substance we call alcohol, but most people enjoy the occasional glass – usually a conduit to social interaction in pubs and bars, though increasingly in our own dwellings using cheap supermarket booze.  There is a minority issue with those whose culture includes getting hammered every Friday night, or whenever it happens to be, not to mention alcoholics who do ruin their lives and those of their loved ones.

In fact, there seems a remarkably thin line between acceptable social drinking and it becoming a problem.  Ah, but they also tell us there may be hidden dangers too:

What may seem like just a drink or two most evenings can do a lot of harm to your body, inside and out.  You might notice that you’re building up a bit of a spare tyre, if you drink alcohol regularly. That’s because there can be a lot of calories in alcohol. Or perhaps your mood can be a bit low in the mornings. Maybe your skin’s not as clear as it was. And we all know how drinking too much can lead to decreased sexual performance, especially for men.

Granted we always associate bloodshot eyes, florid faces and fat bulbous noses with over-consumption from the bottle, not to mention liver conditions too.  But there  is far more so read on…

As well as the things you notice on the outside, there can be some serious stuff happening on the inside. Regularly drinking over the lower risk guidelines increases the chances of suffering more serious health harms such as:

  • Cancer of the throat, oesophagus or larynx. Regularly drinking two large glasses of wine (ABV 13%) or two pints of strong lager (ABV 5.2%) a day could make you three times as likely to get mouth cancer.
  • Breast cancer in women. Regularly drinking just above the guidelines increases the risk of getting breast cancer by around 20%
  • A stroke
  • Heart disease or an irregular heartbeat, which can lead to a heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • Liver disease such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. If you regularly drink just above the lower-risk guidelines, the risk of liver cirrhosis increases 1.7 times
  • Pancreatitis
  • Reduced fertility

People who regularly drink just above the lower-risk guidelines increase their risk of ill-health significantly.  The more you drink, and the more often, the greater the risk to your health. And for people with a medical condition (such as diabetes or high blood pressure) or are suffering from depression or anxiety, alcohol often makes life worse.

Ah, but after this depressing list they do at least give us a chink of light at the end of the tunnel:

The good news is that you can reduce the risk to your health by cutting down the amount of alcohol you drink. Drinking less now can make a big difference to your health later on. And you might notice some benefits even more quickly, like feeling better in the mornings and having more energy. Sound good? That’s just for starters!

But frankly governments since the beginning of time have made a total dogs dinner of discouraging us from drinking, probably for one simple reason:  they don’t believe in the message, and they most certainly don’t practice what they preach, let alone develop arguments to sideline the views of those who want to continue drinking to their hearts’ content, regardless of whether it sends them to an early grave or wrecks their families.  As a nation we are in denial of the issues.

A lot of people would talk about their personal liberty and “nanny state” syndrome here, leaving it down to personal responsibility for health and well-being, rather it being the government’s responsibility to engender better public health, but if the net result is the consuming of scarce NHS resources on preventable conditions the Department of Health would undoubtedly believe their campaign to encourage moderation in drinking levels, along with giving up smoking altogether, is fully justified.

But on the other hand if alcohol is such a dangerous substance why are we not talking about banning alcohol?  Obviously the fact that prohibition doesn’t work and that the law would be ignored and drinking would continue to happen in the modern equivalent of speakeasy bars were it to be made illegal… not to mention the vast income gained from customs duty and VAT on alcohol sales by HM Treasury.

The government’s own statistics reveal that in the year to March 2013 excise duties on wine, beers, ciders and spirits alone raised £10,219m, even without the VAT added on top.   To government, alcohol is a profitable business, and it therefore pays to keep the drink manufacturers and pub trade onside if you are going to continue to milk the golden cow.

The same was also debated in the case of tobacco, though here the evidence of serious harm to the public good became overwhelming, such that while cigarettes, cigars and suchlike are still on sale and taxed ever more highly, the campaign to reduce nicotine intake has had a dramatic effect (including banning smoking in public places), such that smoking is decidedly a minority interest nowadays.

If the government ever had such an intention with alcohol they have not taken any steps to restrict access.  The battle to charge per unit in England and Wales rages on, despite it having been introduced in Scotland, Northern Ireland and elsewhere.  The reason for that debate is quite clear: lobby groups from the drinks industry have the ear of ministers.  Whether or not this is most effective means of encouraging responsible drinking is almost beside the point – unless a compromise acceptable to the industry is found, the government will not push the bill through Parliament, irrespective of the legality issue (if it suits them, governments never seem to have any problem countermanding EU policy!)

Interestingly, pub chains are in favour of minimum pricing, since they are dying on their feet from competition from cheaper sources of alcohol, so anything to close the gap would work in their favour.  Strange that the government seems so happy to support the people who manufacture alcoholic beverages but not those who run the genial establishments selling them.  If anything, that balance should surely be reversed?

But no doubt they would be up in arms if Annie’s Bar in Parliament were closed down!  Seldom a week goes by without a story of an MP or a Lord having been caught drink-driving, or being drunk on some public occasion (the most attributed of late being Eric Joyce and his recent scuffle in the bar at Parliament, and not too long ago how alcoholism destroyed the career of Charlie Kennedy.)  Indeed, parliamentarians are even said to have a “drinking culture” all of their own.  Clearly not a group of people to be entrusted with making the best decisions about how the rest of us should drink!

The point that drugs which are arguably less harmful and do have a clear medicinal role are still banned and dealers prosecuted, in the face of marijuana being legalised (and presumably taxed) in other countries and – wait for it – even some US states, seems almost incidental, but it is indicative of the hypocrisy surrounding these issues and the fact that the UK government has such a schizophrenic approach to these issue simply suggests we as a nation have groped around without a clear, rational strategy for more years than I care to remember.

Cynically, you might argue that governments would sooner more people did die early, in order to take some of the pressure off the NHS, though they would never dare say that in public.  In fact, on the whole subject of alcohol and drugs in general, governments have been disingenuous, if not downright untruthful.

They have ways of sounding sympathetic in finding ways to deal with the social consequences of drinking, the way it can destroy lives, but they are too wedded to the income from alcohol, and the fact that taking any dramatic steps to reduce consumption (either from demand or supply) would lose them votes.  I greatly look forward to the day when there is a government prepared to risk unpopularity and do the right thing, regardless of votes – they pay lip service to that but generally do the opposite!  If they expect us to behave differently, they should begin by setting a positive example, with less of the “do as I say, not as I do” attitude.

However, think on this:  maybe we are all too tolerant of people getting drunk. It’s a rite of passage for teenagers to get pissed, to the extent that one threw up twice at my daughter’s 18th party recently.  There’s always someone who drinks too much, but rather than being disapproving we have a tendency to laugh and joke about it.  If any culture needs to change, it’s the one that allows excessive drinking to be socially acceptable and even desirable.

4 thoughts on “Booze & health”

  1. Not important…do it all in moderation and enjoy. I’d rather live than be tedious. That’s just me. I reckon I’ll snuff it about 70…after that most people’s bodies are wrecked anyway.

    1. I guess the questions are:

      a) How would your family feel if you were shortening your life as a result of drinking and/or behaving badly?
      b) How do you feel about the effects of alcohol on other people? If they are doing it to themselves that is one thing, but do you ever find yourself deploring drunken behaviour in others?

  2. my father was an alcoholic as was his mother………i have seen the dark side and its effect on family and health, i now choose not to drink and very rarely do so……..mainly because i worry about a genetic predispoistion to alocoholism. My sons are now nearly sixteen and both have tasted alcohol in my company…….by taking away the mystique and hopefully exhibiting appropriate behaviour they will not become the pissed teen often portrayed on tv staggering around the streets of cities and town in the uk.
    I think tho that the half a bottle of wine every nite to relax brigade are a nhs burden waiting to happen………..because thee people need a drink and struggle without………..early definition of alcoholism……….?

    1. Thank you for sharing that, Fiona. It must have been incredibly hard to grown up in those circumstances. I hope your kids have learned the painful lessons you had to learn without tragic consequences.

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