Sunday 21 October 2007

Plucking figures from the air

In the past week an academic study into drinking levels has received much media exposure. The highlighted a supposedly frightening level of “hazardous” drinking. But what does that mean? The definition of “hazardous” drinking is a man consuming more than 21 units of 10 mg of alcohol a week. That equates to nine pints of a typical 4.5% ABV beer such as Marston’s Pedigree or Old Speckled Hen. Now nobody would deny that heavy drinking does led to health problems, but to demonise what many would regard as light drinking is absurd.

However, according to a report in The Times, these so-called safe drinking limits were simply plucked out of the air without any scientific justification.

Subsequent studies found evidence which suggested that the safety limits should be raised, but they were ignored by a succession of health ministers.

One found that men drinking between 21 and 30 units of alcohol a week had the lowest mortality rate in Britain. Another concluded that a man would have to drink 63 units a week, or a bottle of wine a day, to face the same risk of death as a teetotaller.
Because of people’s widely varying weights and metabolism, it really is impossible to define any kind of hard-and-fast limit for “safe” drinking. But surely any public health campaign should concentrate on those drinking at levels that are genuinely hazardous, maybe at 100 units a week or more. And even at that level I’ve known people who have enjoyed good health well into old age despite consuming that kind of quantity on a regular basis.

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