Eyebrows were raised by a press report last week of comments by scientist Dr Kari Poikolainen, a former World Health organisation alcohol expert, that drinking only becomes harmful when people consume more than around 13 units a day. Not surprisingly, Julia Manning, from think-tank 2020Health, countered by saying: “This is an unhelpful contribution to the debate. It makes grand claims which we don’t see evidence for. Alcohol is a toxin, the risks outweigh the benefits.” Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?
Now, I’m not advising you to go out and drink 90+ units a week, but there is a kind of fundamental truth in what he says. As I’ve repeatedly said, the current health guidelines represent a kind of lowest common denominator figure that is at the bottom of a gentle U-curve of risk. You certainly don’t encounter a cliff-edge of danger if you exceed them. People’s metabolisms vary so widely that it is impossible to state with certainty that x amount of alcohol will be OK, while y will be harmful.
And there is a kind of widespread folk wisdom that it is around the levels he states – maybe an average of about six pints a day – that drinking does start to become problematic. For example, here I quoted Tim Martin of Wetherspoon’s: “He rails against the government’s 21-units-a-week dictum. “The doctor who came up with it said there’s no medical foundation to it; 70 to 80 units a week.” As a limit, or a recommendation? He laughs.”
Of course it is a fundamental feature of all such public health guidelines that they are set a little below what most people would consider a “normal” level, so a majority is made to feel guilty. The “five-a-day” nonsense is just the same. And, while drinking five pints a day is maybe not a prescription for optimal health, the risk of it doing you serious harm, especially if you’re a sturdy bloke, are greatly exaggerated.