Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Goldilocks effect

There’s a lot of Righteous handwringing about the statistic that the Scots are drinking 12.2 litres of pure alcohol each per year. This is, apparently, enough for every single adult to exceed the government’s (ludicrously low and scientifically unjustified) alcohol consumption guidelines.

But, hang on, that adds up to less than one and half pints a day of 4% ABV beer, which hardly seems to equate to problem drinking. Isn’t the problem more that too many people, within that average, are drinking at excessive and problematical levels, while many others drink little or nothing? I would have said someone who drinks two pints of beer on five days a week, and has two alcohol-free days (thus consuming 23 units over the course of a week) was the very model of a moderate and responsible drinker.

Is it really possible anyway to define an optimal quantity of alcohol for a society to drink each year? Obviously, if you’re a prohibitionist, the answer is nil. But, equally obviously, those of us who do enjoy the occasional drink can’t give the same answer. How much is not too much, not too little, but just right? Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland have punitive alcohol taxes and draconian restrictions on availability, and have markedly lower levels of average consumption, yet still tend to have high levels of alcoholism and acute alcohol poisoning, suggesting that the “forbidden fruit” approach isn’t a magic bullet.

Rather than average per capita consumption, which is really a meaningless figure, wouldn’t a more relevant statistic be the incidence of genuine alcohol-related health problems? And isn’t the problem less that people on average drink too much, but that they drink badly, with drinking too concentrated both amongst individuals and over time - a point made by this rather old article from the Observer?


  1. The Scandinavian statistics are more than a little suspect anyway. They are based on sales of duty bearing alcohol within the country, so they do not show, for example, alcohol consumed in Sweeden, but bought in Denmark or Germany. There is also a lot of home distilled alcohol consumed, which is why their stats for "accidental poisoning" are so high. is a Sweedish study on unrecorded alcohol and it finds that recorded alcohol in Sweeden accounts for about 80% of beer and wine but only 53% of spirits. The rest comes from sources, which do not make it into the official consumption (actually sales) figures.

    A lot of reports, from various countries, which find that price inflation works to reduce consumption rely entirely on sales data and ignore the increase in alcohol from other sources.

  2. Spot on, PC. The health problem is, I think, caused by the incidence of 10+ unit sessions, rather than of a regular couple of pints. Unfortunately, for all the reasons you outline in your column, the number of drinkers consuming 2 pints five times a week must be very low.

  3. 10+ unit sessions? You mean four pints? In what way is this a health problem? The only problem is in the diseased minds of temperance fanatics; and no amount of appeasement is going to make these people leave us alone.

  4. I suspect the 'too much alcohol' level will differ from person to person. Averages don't help greatly.

    It would seem in the first instance that the further north in Europe you go the more people drink overall. At a base level I would suggest that people drink large quantities (however you define that) because modern life is shit. Coupled with that the long cold nights and that will compound the drink levels.

  5. Actually, the Scandinavians drink less than the British, Irish, Germans, French or Czechs, although one could argue that consumption levels are held down by punitive taxation and restricted availability. It is more the attitude to alcohol that changes as you go further north, moving from a relaxed, little-and-often culture as in Spain and Italy to an intense, binge-drinking culture as in the Nordic countries. And I use "binge" in the proper sense of the word, not to mean three pints at a sitting.

  6. Binge drinking is a "must" in
    the pubs today to help you forget
    the sour pussed mutants congregating in cliques ,discussing
    F1 or Beckhams haircut or Golf.
    not to mention the semi dead
    devouring soya burgers and sipping
    grape sweat.

    Healthy 4 Pints a week smker


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