Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Keeping the score

Last year, the recommended maximum levels of alcohol consumption were reduced to just 14 units a week for both men and women, the equivalent of a mere six pints of 4.0% beer. Many people, with justification, will dismiss this as a ludicrous exaggeration of risk. But, on the other hand, many others who are more inclined to accept official messages at face value will take it to heart, and it will strengthen the hand of the anti-drink lobby by, at a stroke, greatly increasing the number of “problem” drinkers.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably fond of the odd drop of beer. But you will have realised that, if you mix in varied circles, with family and work colleagues, that there is a huge divergence in attitudes to alcohol within society. I recently made an estimate that, in the course of a year, I probably drank about 600 pints in pubs, or about eleven and a half a week *. Assuming an average strength of 4.2%, that’s 28 units a week, which supposedly puts me in the category of a “hazardous” drinker. To be honest, having looked in to the statistics, I’m not remotely bothered about any additional risk that involves, and in the overall scheme of things it’s pretty trivial. If you never did anything that involved any risk, you’d never do anything at all.

But many people would look at that figure and say “ooh, 600 pints, that’s an awful lot of beer!” while others would probably dismiss me as a lightweight. If you believe what they say on social media, many people scarcely ever seem to be out of the pub. Now, so long as they’re doing it with their eyes open, I’m the last person to sit in judgment on others, and perhaps some of them have a tendency to big it up. However it is clear that a substantial, although diminishing, number of people continue to jug it back with gusto, while others look on with pursed lips thinking “Eww, a whole pint!?”

I wrote about this divide in a column from 2006, where I said:

“It is striking nowadays how at some social gatherings people look askance at a level of alcohol consumption that at others would seem untypically modest. We are becoming two nations marked by our tolerance (or lack of it) for alcohol, and it is less and less common to see the old-fashioned moderate social drinking actually taking place.”
But it is very clear which side is gaining the upper hand at present.

* For two months last year, out of curiosity, I did an exercise to record all the different beers I drank. Totalling these up, it revealed that I consumed 34 pints in pubs in November, and 38 in December. However, October would certainly have been higher, as it included trips out to Birmingham and Leicester, and showing the Southworth brothers around the pubs of Stockport. Given that I would also have consumed a fair bit more during holiday weeks, that’s consistent with 600 a year. The results of the exercise showed a staple diet of Old Brewery Bitter, Lees Bitter, Holts Bitter and Robinson’s Unicorn and Wizard, interspersed with a few other beers (and one solitary pint of Draught Bass) and so weren’t really very illuminating.

28 comments:

  1. Spot on. I'd never have called you a hazardous drinker (no offence). You drink similar pattern to me, and the odd binge is very rare indeed. In fact, I've never seen you remotely drunk (the opposite doesn't apply).

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    1. It's something that has a specific definition. Under the previous guidelines, a "hazardous drinker" was someone consuming between 22 and 50 units a week, for a man, or 15 to 35 units for a woman. A "harmful drinker" was consuming above those ranges. If these have now been equalised, then presumably I qualify as a "harmful drinker" taking into account beer, wine and spirits not consumed in pubs.

      People who have known me longer will recall ocasions when I have been horrendously drunk (ask John Clarke about the German beer tasting night at the Crown) but I do my best to avoid such situations nowadays. 6 or 6½ pints would be my limit for a day out such as those in Oxford and Northampton.

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    2. John Clarke beer tasting, you say. Now there's a coincidence...

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    3. It was organised by the pub, although John was present. Apparently I had to be "poured into a taxi" - another coincidence ;-)

      This was also in the days (when such things were legal) when, after a certain level of inebriation had been reached, I would occasionally be motivated to cadge fags off others.

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    4. I'll vouch for Curmudgeon's extreme intoxication on that German evening: certainly the drunkest I've ever seen him in the 30 years I've known him. Draught Schlenkerla Rauchbier by the bucket, as I recall. And I think it's probably the only time I've ever seen him smoke.

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    5. You were not even remotely drunk on our tour of Stockport.

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  2. I don't know how many people will take the guidelines literally - probably only the small group of uber-cautious, ultra-meek folks for whom a 70 MPH speed limit is a seen as a reason to drive at 55 on the motorway, rather than a moderating factor in driving at a steady 80 rather than 100.

    The sort of people who think that ordering a dessert is some sort of terrible crime for which they deserve to be punished. The sort of people who think a 6% beer or a medium-spiced curry is pushing the boat right out of Hardcore Bay.

    The rest of us will safely ignore them and plough our own furrows, listening to our own bodies and making our own sensible decisions.

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    1. A lot of people do take such things seriously, and see them as an aspiration even if they don't actually achieve them. How many people nowadays talk about whether or not they have achieved their "five a day", which is equally made-up nonsense? People will say "ooh, I had 20 units last week, I was really naughty!"

      I don't know what your employment situation is, but if you work with a mixed group of others you must be conscious of either being a bit coy about your alcohol consumption, or of feeling something of an outlier.

      Also bear in mind the impact of demographic churn - what really matters is not so much whether you or I cahnge our behaviour, but what is the attitude of new entrants into the drinking population. And, in recent years, alcohol consumption has plummeted amongst under-25s.

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    2. Indeed, I have worked with many such people to varying degrees. Years ago I was frowned upon for ordering a *non alcoholic beer* at a team lunch...

      We may not like the look of the future, but we have no more right to force under 25s to drink more than they do to force us to drink less. Puritanism and Abstemiousness tend to come and go in waves. Eventually there will come a generation who rediscover the joys of hearty drinking and it will increase in popularity once more.

      Though possibly not until after we are all dead...

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  3. I have never lied about how much i have had to drink over the years, from the early 80s through to the mid 90s i drunk 90 to over 100 pints a week and worked full time and was rarely late for work.
    The older i have got i have slowed down and last year when i felt fit and well i was drinking about 50 pints a week on pub crawl weeks a lot more, i hardly ever get really drunk and could count on one hand when i have been very drunk over the last 20 years normally at weddings.
    On pub crawls i could do 23 pubs having a half in each and have a drink in Nottingham or Derby on the way back and have a pint of home brew at home and i would feel alright and not drunk at all.
    Two days before my op that would change my life forever we being me and the wife went to Lincoln Christmas market for one final blow out, i had 11 and a half pints and a glass of wine,my wife had 5 and a half pints and two glasses of wine plus a double cognac,it was very hard for me to eat so i had three packets of crisps.

    Regarding where i work which is in a dirty factory,most of my work mates including women were heavy drinkers up until i went off sick.
    That is my drinking career, i know younger people like my Daughter hardly ever have a drink.

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    1. Serious dedication to the cause there, Alan. I think some sort of medal is in order.

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  4. I honestly can't think of anyone I know who takes the prescribed units seriously. My view is that reducing the male limit from 21 to 14 made them even less credible than they had been before. In a poll of doctors in 2016, two thirds disagreed with the Chief Medical Officer for England's (CMOE's) assertion that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.

    Colin Valentine, when he was CAMRA's national chair, made a point that I've made on my own blog previously: if the current units lack credibility, or if there is insufficient plausible scientific evidence to support them, people will simply ignore them. That should be rather obvious, even to the CMOE - but strangely it isn't.

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  5. 600 pints a year is considerably less than 2 pints a day of what's mostly water. Seems alright to me.

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  6. While I don't doubt excess of alcohol is not good for you (just like anything to excess) the lack of any real science to the "limits" makes them nonsense. I.e. a unit of spirits has got to be more harmful than diluted with added nutrients in beer. Compare this with the total lack of knowledge about the affect of the cocktail of drugs many older people are on. Basically, these headlines are all about reinforcing a particular world view.

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  7. 600 pints. 15 times more than the allocated 40 pints of Spoons Bitter. #Pubman

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  8. On the subject of the beer guidelines. You guys are not the target. The kids in school are.

    Them's the ones setting an idea of what is acceptable on the basis of the advice they listen to. For older people that's the 40 units the guidelines used to be. For people my age it's the 21 units we were always advised. The kids are listening to the 14 units.

    Prohibition is a generational thing.

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    1. That's the point I made about demographic churn - in the future, people will come to see alcoholic drinks as a rare indulgence rather than part of daily life.

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    2. Interestingly all that told their doctor they were moderate drinkers within the then 21 units a week a couple of years ago, at a routine check up, will now be reclassified excessive drinkers in need of help.

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    4. Since when did kids in skool pay any attention to advice from their elders?

      And when I was a lad the guideline was 56 units, a level I struggled to achieve.

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    5. As the Highway Code says, it's a limit, not a target ;-)

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    6. The other Mudgie !24 May 2018 at 16:45

      Mention of 56 units a week reminds me that that was probably about right.
      In the mid 1970s I briefly worked at a brewery and the 'allowance' was two pints a day which was very obviously meant in addition to not instead of what we might drink in pubs and I don't believe anyone came to any harm from also averaging two pints each weekday evening and four pints each Saturday and Sunday.
      When I were a lad my uncle said that beer was safe but spirits were dangerous and that's probably about the only advice anyone needs.

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  9. With all this self identification being all the rage I am currently identifying as Japanese (male). Incidentally, the Japanese unit is 19.75 grammes of pure ethanol. They recommend 40 g per day for men, which is the same as Spain. That's 5 UK units per day. It used to be much higher. BTW I will be at the Angles Ales corner of the Cambridge Beer festival on Friday lunch time and afternoon.

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  10. Professor Pie-Tin23 May 2018 at 19:23

    I doubt there's been a week in the past four and half decades where I haven't drank less than 30 pints and when I was working in the newspaper business it was often double or treble that number.
    That's just pints mind you.Add in the oceans of red wine,the G&Ts,the bubbly and the port and it paints a pretty sorry picture ... allegedly.
    I never took a day off sick and today my blood pressure and cholesterol are completely normal.
    However I'm now about 20 pounds overweight thanks to a gammy knee,the result of those same decades of running,which makes vigorous exercise difficult.
    I reckon a couple of months of no booze and healthy eating will shift that easily.
    My older brother,a consultant physician and life-long heavy boozer in his 70s,is of the opinion it's not the booze but the type of grub that people eat which causes health problems.
    People have always drank lots of beer and it's only in the past few decades that obesity has reared its ugly head.
    He,like me,thinks recommended weekly drinking targets are frankly bollocks.

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    1. Your brother is obvious of the old school who define a alcoholic as a man who drinks more than his doctor :-)

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    2. My concern is that these figures are not based on any kind of proper statistically analysed scientific research.
      A liver specialist sees six people in a week who drink 100+ units and have suffered sever liver damage. Her response is to conclude that heavy drinking always causes liver damage.
      The correct scientific response would be to ascertain how many people drink to that level`without suffering damage. Only then can you quantify the risks of heavy drinking

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    3. The other Mudgie !24 May 2018 at 16:51

      I've not been able to find it since but in the news a few years ago was a liver specialist who said that 90% of his patients were middle class wine drinkers, those who could easily afford it and a well deserved glass of wine on getting home from work soon became a well deserved bottle or more - and that just shows how futile minimum unit pricing will be.

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    4. "I doubt there's been a week in the past four and half decades where I haven't drank less than 30 pints"

      Interestingly, that means the opposite of what you meant it to mean – "haven't" should have been "have" – and yet we all know what you meant.

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