Alcohol puritans: drunk on power?

Posted on January 8, 2016

The UK's chief medical officers have issued new drinking guidelines, which imply there is no safe level of drinking. The guidelines claim that 'there are adverse effects from drinking alcohol on a range of cancers… and these risks start from any level of regular drinking and then rise with the amounts of alcohol being drunk'.

Yet as we noted back in September, a recent study published in the Lancet looking at a range of countries around the world found that, in developed countries like the UK, moderate drinking was associated with 'significantly reduced hazards' for a combined measure of clinical outcomes (see Is alcohol really so unhealthy?). At worst, moderate drinking is harmless; at best, it may even be healthy to regularly enjoy a glass or two of our favourite 'poison'. In reality, the harms from what Britain's 'top doctors' would no doubt describe as 'heavy drinking' - but which the rest of us regard as a normal night out - are low.

The claim that drinking anything more than the equivalent of one pint of fairly weak beer or a glass of wine per day is unsafe or risky flies in the face of common sense. No one would be foolish enough to believe that drinking a lot every day is completely harmless. But these guidelines are simply ludicrous. Perhaps one benefit of these new guidelines is that they help bring the whole notion of public-health guidelines into disrepute in the eyes of many people. Only fanatics with a shaky grasp on reality could seriously suggest we stick to such miserable levels of boozing.

The real purpose of such guidelines is to denormalise anything but the lightest drinking. Alcohol campaigners regularly argue that boozing puts a terrible strain on the NHS. (It's nonsense - thanks to swingeing booze taxes, drinkers already pay for any additional costs involved.) By combining these two ideas - irresponsible drinkers and the collapse of our healthcare services - campaigners and public health officials make the case for extending nanny state policies on drinking. We've already seen the Scottish Parliament pass a law to introduce minimum unit pricing, even if it seems that it will be deemed illegal under European law. Expect demands for more health warnings, including grotesque images of diseased livers on bottles, higher taxes and other regulations, penalties and bans.

We know all this because this public-health playbook is wearily familiar to smokers. The 'success' of anti-tobacco regulation has encouraged other puritanical types to copy that strategy. The best possible response is to demand the right to choose how we live our lives and to decide for ourselves how much we indulge in 'bad habits'.