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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

January 18, 2011



Drinking to our health? Of course not

A row has blown up among doctors over the benefits of moderate drinking. It’s fairly well established that a small amount of alcohol a day can, in some cases, protect against certain kinds of heart disease, and there are other, more debatable, benefits besides. But a Dr Maurizio Ponz de Leon describes such health messages as “hazardous and extremely dangerous to diffuse in the general population”.

While not entirely with Dr Ponz de Leon on this – his view that ordinary people can’t tell the difference between moderate and excessive consumption is patronising – I do get faintly annoyed when the mainstream media regurgitates every few months the same old story about a glass of red wine being good for you.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Depends on who you are, really. But it’s all a bit pointless as nobody is going to drink for medicinal reasons – unless they’re kidding themselves.

The drinks industry, of course, has long been interested in the idea that the stuff they produce might have medical benefits. The Guinness is Good For You campaign is the most famous example. One ad was headed “A doctor writes…” and declared the stout as ‘7% food’. There you go – only 14 pints and you can call it a meal.

My mum remembers being prescribed a bottle of Guinness in the maternity ward. Make of that what you will.

But what I object to here is the medicalisation of booze. It’s not what it’s for. We can’t get bogged down in endless scientific debates about exactly how much drink is beneficial and at exactly what point it becomes ‘dangerous’.Too much depends on who’s drinking it and in what context.

That’s why I’m against recommending unit limits on drinking. Blanket advice like this doesn’t work. People need to be understood by their doctors and treated as individuals. That, of course, is expensive, which is why we have public health campaigns that hope to get us to make our own calculations about what’s good for us and what isn’t.

Fortunately, human beings aren’t machines programmed with the correct behaviours to ensure maximum health. We’ll take the odd risk if it feels good without doing all the necessary sums, without reading all the relevant scientific papers.

If we’re going to have a sensible alcohol policy, it’s going to have to accept that it’s dealing with less than fully rational social beings.

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