At first sight, the Lancet report into the health effects of alcohol consumption that came out last week was full of terrifying assertions. Particularly once you add in rent-a-quote comments in the press.
Booze is just like smoking.
No level is safe.
That extra glass of wine or tequila shot at the end of the night is going to quite literally snip 15 minutes off your life.
This was what we woke up to on Friday morning. The world we live in, what we do for a livelihood – it’s killing people. It’s killing us. We’re all on a one-way booze train to an early grave.
As usual in these things, however, the devil was in the detail. And this tended to be largely ignored by the mainstream press, who dived in with the ‘more than 15 units a week will shorten your life by two years’ line.
But before going into that, let’s just get a couple of things clear first.
As an industry, this magazine’s readers (and, indeed, its staff) almost certainly drink more than most people, and probably more than is good for them.
I think we’re all waking up to the dangers of that and, in general, doing something about it. If you want to do this job long-term, you have to look after yourself, and it’s no coincidence that we’re reading/writing more about the whole concept of ‘wellness’ now than we were ten years ago.
But I’m preconditioned to question many of these medical studies. They’re popped out with the regularity of a Labrador birthing pups, and many of them have a nakedly political agenda, often backed up with questionable science.
The study last year about sensible drinking posters is a good example. It gained predictable traction in the red-tops despite being based on a study with more holes in its logic than a Donald Trump tweet.
This one at least carries some weight behind it. Put together by following over half a million people in 20 countries, it certainly has critical mass on its side.
The question is, should we agree with its conclusions?
The figures do, it’s true, make grim reading for anyone drinking over 45 units a week. But this isn’t exactly news. For decades, studies have proved that once you get past six to eight units a day you’re into ‘problem drinking’ and ‘health issue’ territory. If you’re regularly consuming at that level you need to have a word with yourself.
What’s rather more cynical is the way the report lumps together anyone in the 25-44 units a week level, claiming that a 40 year old drinking in that area will lose two years off their life expectancy.
But that’s a pretty broad church: there must, surely, be a difference between the health of someone drinking 25 units a week and someone drinking almost twice that. Conflate them into one group, however, and you have a good means of scaring the bejesus out of relatively moderate drinkers.
The most contentious point of the research is the way it suggests that 25 units a week is something of a cut-off point, healthwise, and that ‘safe drinking’ levels are lower than expected.
Even then, beneath the headlines it’s not all bad news. The figures show that there are significantly lower problems (and still some benefits) in the 15-20 units/week level.
And when it comes to heart attacks – by far the biggest killer of people in late middle-age – alcohol actually helps: you’re more likely to have a heart attack if you don’t drink than if you do.
It really isn’t, in other words, as simple as ‘booze is bad’, and to equate alcohol to tobacco (which genuinely is bad across the board) as one British academic did in the Guardian is frankly irresponsible.
The interesting thing about this study, perhaps, is that its conclusions are different from anything that has gone before. As Dr Erik Skovenborg, a Danish doctor with a speciality in studying the relationship between alcohol and health told me, pretty much all the studies over the last 30 years have concluded that up to four units a day is beneficial, six units a day is broadly neutral and above that you encounter health problems.
This study resets those numbers a lot lower, and suggests that alcohol can never be beneficial.
So the question is, do we agree that this new research is sufficient – as the authors claim – to justify a global call for 15 units a week to be the agreed maximum?
Or do we ask whether there might be something in the methodology that has caused these results to be different from most of what has gone before? That they’re a contributing factor to an ongoing debate, rather than a basis to re-set policy.
At the very least, it seems logical not to write off three decades of research on the back of one study.
In the end, we all have to take responsibility for our actions. We need to balance the joy, the pleasure, the sociability of drink with the harm it can do. To be aware that cracking open another bottle of wine at the end of the night or throwing back another mezcal shot doesn’t come consequence free.
Equally, I doubt that too many of us are attracted by a life of puritanical abstinence.
As a classic piece of graffiti from the 1980s put it, ‘If you give up drink, drugs and sex you don’t live longer, it just feels like it’.