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Sunday, 3 January 2010

Let's be nice month is over

Danger! This much beer is 'hazardous'!

Ah, New Year, a time for reflection, refocus, resolution. A time for getting fit, a time for... the neo-prohibitionists to go completely fucking apeshit, pouncing on the moment when many moderate drinkers prove they don't have a drink problem by taking a few weeks off the sauce, and use it to ram fear and alarm down the nations throats as never before.

Binge drinking on New Year's Eve alone could cost the NHS £23 million. New Years Eve itself saw our cities burn to the ground in a drink-fuelled orgy of violence and people falling over on the snowy pavements. The rising cost of treating drinkers could cripple the NHS. And most worryingly of all, one in four Brits are now consuming alcohol at 'hazardous levels'. That last one must be true: it says so in the Observer, and is sourced from a NHS report.

Let's just take that last one, as it's the most worrying. Check out the NHS report for their justification of this claim, and it refers you to a separate appendix. Here, the source of this claim is given as the National Audit Office Report, Reducing Alcohol Harm. This is actually a well-written and researched report for the most part, but it tells us that the definition of 'hazardous' is from the World Health Organisation, who define 'hazardous' as 'exceeding government recommended limits' in the country in question, whatever those limits might be, even though they vary from country to country.

To get to the figure of 25%, the NAO report has used the recommended safe daily guidelines - expressed as units - to get to their definition of what constitutes 'government recommended limits'.

Let's not even get started on the fact that these units are completely arbitrary. It's the old trick: the government unit recommendations are guidelines for drinking safely. They have been interpreted as limits, over which drinking is hazardous. According to the OED, a guideline is a 'general rule or principle'. A limit, in this context, is 'a restriction on the size or amount of something permissible or possible'. They mean entirely different things - but they are wilfully conflated whenever people talk about alcohol. If you think they mean the same thing, consider this example.

I got my calculator out again. You calculate a 'unit' of alcohol by multiplying the volume of liquid (in ml) by its ABV, and dividing by 1000. The 'guideline' alcohol consumption for men is no more than four units per day.

Take Kronenbourg. 1 pint = 568ml x 5%/1000 = 2.84 units
1.5 pints = 852ml x 5%/1000 = 4.26 units

The guideline for women is 3 units per day. 1 x 175 ml glass of 12% wine is 2.1 units. 1 x 150ml glass is - quite conveniently - 3 units.

If you drink a pint and a half of Kronenbourg in one day - even if that's half a pint with lunch and one pint in the evening - you are a 'hazardous' drinker. If you drink one large glass of wine that is stronger than 12%, you are a 'hazardous' drinker. According to the latest NHS report, you're no different from an alky downing a bottle of cheap vodka every day.

Furthermore, the way this data is collected, the actual question is along the lines of 'did you drink this much on one day during the last week'. If you say yes, you're included in the figure. So you could have drunk alcohol on only one out of seven days and you still count as a hazardous drinker.

A large glass of 13% abv wine, a pint and a half of lager - or two pints of real ale - in one day, with six days abstinence? Congratulations, you're still a hazardous drinker.

This is what the whole of the UK national media have accepted without question.

Be scared.


BeerReviewsAndy said...

Interesting stuff Pete, i've been tracking my intake on the NHS app for the last month, it's quite scary when you have one or two bottles of strongish beer and the app ends up showing you as bordering on binge drinking!

BLTP said...

interesting point under the observer editorial (interesting because CIF rarely has anything less than splenetic bile but also in and of it's self) that a supposed liberal paper gives in to allowing people to practise free will on how and what they drink. The whole thing looked like tossed off wire service hackery rather than a honest look at how and why we drink and how to help people who have serious and terrible substance abuse problems.

Rabidbarfly said...

Very interesting considering I've just started a beer diary for the month of January. I'm not sure whether or not i'll be completely terrified by the results or totally apathetic.

Curmudgeon said...

Very well put, Pete. The problem is that what were once guidelines of best practice, set at a lowest common denominator level, have now metamorphosed into a definition of the limits of acceptable behaviour.

Private Poontang said...

Nail on the head as usual.
And can we have a shout in support of binge drinking which I actually think is the safest form of boozing.
I have spent the past 10 days of the holidays getting mullahed on a nightly basis - easily consuming 20-plus units a day.
I'll have one more lash off it tonight and then tomorrow I'll go off the drink completely for a week to flush out the liver.
I already know exactly the occasion on which I'll take drink on board again and how much I'll have.
I'll then have another break after that.
I've been doing this regularly for the past 35 years and it has not affected my ability to work, run a successful business, raise a family and run a number of marathons.
My health is fine apart from currently being about s stone overweight and half of that will come off in the next week.
All this hazardous drinking nonsense is bollocks and an insult to the intelligence of the average person.

Eddie said...

The same NHS report says: "In 2006/07 alone, alcohol was
estimated to have accounted for
£2.7 billion of NHS expenditure"

Direct alcohol duty raised in 2006/7 was £9.9bn (source: HMRC Budget 2007)

Far from crippling the NHS, the alcohol industry funds a much larger part than it uses.

lizvater said...

3 cheers for Private Poontang. I like your style.

Sid Boggle said...

I note our Paper of Record (the News Of The Screws) reported that Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood is knocking back two bottles of vodka a day - helpfully, they converted this to units - 50 - so if we take Ronnie's 350 units a week out of the numbers, that should bring the average down a bit.

zythophile said...

This is what the whole of the UK national media have accepted without question.

And yet, while much less drinking goes on at lunchtimes and in the evenings that when I was a cub reporter, it is still true that journalists are a far from abstemious race. Unfortunately we also like a good scare story, and our addiction to those is far greater than our addiction to alcohol, which is why you see all those stupid made-up tales like email lowers your IQ more than drugs.

junklight said...

"be scared"

Indeed - something the papers seem increasingly interested in spreading is fear from reports like this to the "there are thousands of terrorists out there" the day after the attempted terrorist thing recently.

The worst thing is that the knee-jerk government then goes and makes policy decisions based on this fear.

Not sure what the answer is - hopefully the papers will become increasingly shrill and alarmist and eventually everyone will start to see them for the fear mongers that they are.

I can only presume that this strategy somehow helps them sell papers.

Richard said...

Two points, both of which should not be taken as an anti-drinking rant!

Firstly, most people are not aware of how much they're drinking. Pete - I've just read and enjoyed "Three Sheets to the Wind" and you point out that drinking stronger drinks in the smaller measures often enjoyed on the continent might help reduce mental drunkenness exhibited by necking ten pints of Stella. Similarly, drinking a couple of pints of strong beer (mmm, Jaipur...) every night does build up and is quite a lot. It might not make one a binge drinker, but it isn't insignificant.

Secondly, drinking costs the NHS and police a fortune. My wife was a finance manager with London Ambulance and you can guess when the busiest time was... No, this isn't all people getting bladdered on beer, but the cost to the NHS and society in terms of immediate drunkeness and injuries; fighting; and long term damage from serious binge drinking is massive. Yes Eddie, alcohol tax may raise more than the NHS cost, but it's not ring-fenced.

So, a long-winded rant :-) Summed up as: most people don't have a clue how much they drink in a week and the cost to the NHS of the consequences of drunken behaviour is massive. But no, it's not all beer's fault.

Private Poontang said...

Richard - I take your point but for every crop-haired lager lout arriving at an NHS hospital with blood streaming from a head wound there are a thousand other people drinking heavily and happily without so much as a chipped fingernail.

In the same way that there are millions of recreational drug users who are able to maintain a normal life without descending in crime and poverty.

By tarring everyone with the same brush the Government, through the NHS, is weakening its own case and will not be taken seriously.

In the same way that the apocalyptic warnings about swine flu, mad cow disease, bird flue et al all proved baseless and each time the public simply feels conned.

The nanny state needs to treat adults like adults.

Pete Brown said...

Richard, I don't disagree with anything you say, and don't worry - it doesn't read ranty, it reads a great deal more thoughtful than most of what we see in the papers.

My family has been affected by alcoholism and I never seek to deny the problem that exists.

What angers me is that the NHS's own data shows that binge drinking and its associated problems are in consistent, long term decline, and we are being lied to, told it is on the increase. If we don't fight back about it this will lead to measures that punish all drinkers.

zythophile said...

"… the cost to the NHS and society in terms of immediate drunkeness and injuries; fighting; and long term damage from serious binge drinking is massive.

(1)It's actually very little per taxpayer in the UK and anyway

(2)the vast majority of the "cost" to the NHS is sunk cost, which would have to be paid anyway: doctors, nurses and ambulancepeople are on duty whether there are drunks coming in with head wounds or not, and

(3) Nobody ever calculates the benefits of drinking: the value of all that shared social experience, pleasure and enjoyment that is the reason almost all of us drink in the first place.