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Friday, 22 January 2010

Bridget the Midget

We’re obsessing, I’m obsessing about alcohol. Randomly select any paper and there’s likely to be something about binge drinking, the dangers of social drinking, drink and the middle classes and how we’re all going to hell in a beer barrel.

A while back the ”Daily Mail” warned that young women working in offices were at twice the risk of dying from alcohol related illnesses than the rest of the population. The article went on to suggest that these young girls were in pretty good company. Apparently, female actors and entertainers, bar staff and managers, hoteliers, kitchen staff, musicians, male middle ranking civil servants, security guards , (some) members of the armed forces and seafarers were at greater risk of dying from alcohol related illnesses than the rest of us.

That doesn’t leave much of the population left. Clerics, farmers and driving instructors appear to have a lower risk, with teaching assistants, dinner ladies, nursery nurses and childminders at the bottom of the women’s league table. It is re-assuring to learn that doctors who at one time couldn’t operate, or prescribe a treatment without swigging a litre of claret now have a significantly lower risk than you and I.

My personal experience doesn’t support that finding. A couple of years ago I saw my consultant and in discussion I mentioned I liked drinking wine but was concerned that it might be unhealthy. He looked at me straight in eye; “One of the great pleasures in life, me lad. Wouldn’t give up my daily wine fix for the world.” He said that or something very similar. When I returned the following year I was told that he’d retired – to Madeira. Lucky man.

In September I had a photograph taken of me. I looked enormous and I put it down to the huge volume of liquid calories I was pouring down my gullet. I would cut back on drinking.

By golly, I found it really difficult to do. I used to drink every night. I’d share a bottle of wine with my wife – for sharing read two thirds, one third and I might start on another. I didn’t regularly drink out in pubs or bars but I think the bi-monthly meet up with ex work mates in a wine bar near the offices made up for that. We’d each easily put away a bottle and a half of New Zealand Sauv Blanc or Pinot Noir. Now when we meet up we have flagons of tap water to dilute the wine and since it fills up the belly less alcohol gets consumed.

I recently went to the DrinkAware website, and using their Drink Diary keep a track of my intake. It’s a bit like Bridget Jones and her score of booze intake.
What is so scary is the disconnection between what I think/thought was pleasurable/ relatively safe drinking and what the health profession tell me is a sure fire recipe for death and destruction.

As an adult male, I should try to limit my alcohol intake to 3 to 4 units a day (21 units a week). Doesn’t seem a lot does it? It isn’t. It’s a frighteningly small amount. 2 pints of moderately strong beer or little more than two small glasses of wine will take up your daily allowance. Of course, I shouldn’t call it an allowance – it’s not something you are obliged to drink everyday.

So far this week I’ve consumed 12 units and that was just drinking on Monday and Wednesday, both occasions over or well over the “limit. That leaves me with 9 units so maybe I’ll splurge on Saturday. Except downing that number in one session is classed as binge drinking. But that’s less than one bottle of red wine for Pete’s sake!!

This is where I get confused. Read any literature, good, bad or indifferent and it’s littered with references to regular drinking. My hero Sherlock Holmes would, with Dr Watson, regularly have a bottle of claret with their lunch and dinner. Bertie Wooster (my alter ego) would have a snifter of brandy or scotch regularly during the day and hourly during times of crisis. Samuel Pepys did, it has to be said, cut down on the wine and in “The Diary of John Longe ”, a gentleman parson,our eponymous hero, whilst enjoying a regular intake of wine significantly stronger than the stuff he served up at communion, was regularly laid up with gout.

I think I saw a graph the other day which showed the consumption of alcohol over the last 100 years. As I read it we’re drinking about the same amount as we did in 1900. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t worry as much illness and death may well have occurred as a result. Certainly the temperance movement were alive to the dangers of heavy drinking but I suspect ill health was less of a concern than public disorder, broken homes and worklessness. Sounds familiar to today’s “Daily Mail” readers?

Is there a class dimension to drinking and the resultant behaviour? My drinking is social, his/her is anti-social. In the 18th century and the “Gin Plague”, the living conditions of many was pretty dire; gin was cheap and a buffer against the harsh realities of the time. Is that why we have a problem today? Life for many is pretty unpalatable; getting regularly hammered is a way to lift that drudgery. No, that’s a dangerously condescending view.

Availability and price surely has something to do with increased consumption. That's the way markets work; that’s what our economic system tries to achieve – increased consumption through greater access and at lower prices. You don’t interfere with the market mechanism unless it’s working imperfectly or delivering outcomes that are injurious to society or a significant group in society. But first you need to have the evidence. We may be drinking more than is good for us but, who knows, maybe the increased welfare gained from drinking is greater than the detriment from ill health, early death, social breakdown and additional costs to the state (i.e. you and me as tax and excise duty payers).

As I've already said I get confused. It is a huge question and the arguments and interests are wide and varied. What is frustrating is that there appears to be no attempt to bring together all the conflicting views and evidence.

Is it a major policy issue which Government should address, and if so how? We’ve had Royal Commissions on Local Government, Trade Unions, Criminal Justice and the Care of the Elderly. What about holding a Royal Commission on “the Nation’s State of Inebriation “?

Mine’s a large one.

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