Guess who wrote the booze guidelines?

Posted on June 2, 2016

In January, the UK's chief medical officers published revised guidelines on what they considered to be 'safe' levels of drinking: 14 units per week for both men and women. To describe drinking any more than one pint of lager per day as potentially dangerous is ludicrous and flies in the face of the evidence that moderate drinking can be beneficial to health. How could a committee of experts come up with such a daft idea?

On Monday, The Times published a story pointing out: 'The report to Britain’s chief medical officers, who provoked an outcry when they announced the new limit in January, did not mention that four key figures behind it were closely associated with the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS), a lobby group financed by the temperance movement.' The committee included four 'IAS supporters' including Professor Petra Meier of Sheffield University and three of her colleagues. Research from Sheffield, often of dubious merit but presented with the gloss of scientific rigour, has frequently been used by anti-alcohol campaigns. Another committee member was Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance and another anti-alcohol campaigner.

Such facts are well worth reporting. But they won't come as any surprise to anyone who has had any dealings with government policy and public health. The basic outlook on the issue - that smoking, drinking and eating the 'wrong' foods is bad and Something Must Be Done - comes first. Evidence is provided by academics or activists (often one and the same) to justify a change of policy. Then a hand-picked committee of 'experts' is formed to make the policy 'official', before government finally steps in with regulations.

This is supposed to be the era of 'evidence-based policy', but once governments gave up on having principles - like the idea that a citizen's personal lifestyle choices are a matter for them alone - they have fallen back on relying on 'evidence' alone to guide decision-making. When monomaniacs with a desire to regulate our lives see this, then it's only a matter of producing some 'policy-based evidence' to win the day. Committees are stacked with like-minded people. Anyone who questions this evidence is quickly painted as a shill for Big Tobacco, Alcohol or Food and their point of view is airbrushed out of the debate. Stalin would be impressed by such shenanigans.

Evidence is useful, once sifted through critical debate and discussion, to clarify what is real and what is illusory. There's no doubt that consumers appreciate a bit of guidance on what we really do know about health risks. But evidence, as dished up by such committees, has far more to do with politics than science.

That's why it's so important that a few political principles make a comeback. One of them is that it should be for us as individuals to make these judgements about what balance we put on enjoyment versus risk. For some people, health is everything. They are welcome to their high-fibre, five-a-day, teetotal lives. But if we want to enjoy a cigarette, a beer or a sweet fizzy drink - as many of us do - that should be our choice, not one denied us by committees and politicians.