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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

January 30, 2012



All change for the mismeasure of drink?

As the government prepares to make a major statement on alcohol policy, probably some time in February, there have been some interesting manouvrings going on.

First, the validity of current drinking guidelines were challenged by a House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report. This calls for a review of the guidelines themselves and the terminology used in communicating them to the public. As we know, there is no actual scientific evidence for the 21/14 units a week limit. That was simply the result of a consensus of Royal Colleges.

As for communication, I think this pre-Christmas video on the BBC attempting to explain alcohol units to the lay drinker says it all. How on earth is anyone supposed to work all that out while they’re trying to enjoy themselves?

And as the committee sensibly points out, how much you can drink will vary between individuals and according to circumstances. Even Sir Ian Gilmore, the UK’s unofficial spokesman for medical temperance, seemed pleased the report “captures the complexity” of the issue in an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme on January 9.

Yet capturing complexity might undermine the “clear, uniform messages” he also believes are important. Indeed, under gentle pressure from John Humphrys, he struggled himself to be clear and uniform.

“If somebody drinks half a glass of wine a day they’re unlikely to come to harm.” “Using alcohol daily to reduce stress is a slippery slope.” “It (the amount it’s safe to drink) probably differs across sexes and ages”. “If you drink two units a day every day you will probably be all right – but there’s probably no safe limit.”

That’s cleared that up then.

Of course, if there is some radical change to the alcohol guidelines it will upset all those who’ve based their long-term health promotion strategy on them, not least the drinks industry. But if Gilmore’s wobbling it could happen.

More serious consequences might arise from a Department of Health report on the “technical specifications of public health indicators”. In it (see para 2.18) the DoH says it’s considering changing the definition of alcohol-related hospital admissions, specifically to start using only primary diagnoses.

As the Straight Statistics website explains, ditching the current dubious methods of calculation will cause the figures to plummet. That will not only create difficulties for headline-writers and lobbyists snatching at a shock soundbite. It will also mean an adjustment to the calculation of what alcohol costs the health service, the numbers on which, for instance, the economic case for minimum alcohol pricing is based.

On the other hand, it will give us a more accurate impression of the scale of the drink problem. Which would be a novelty. Just as long as the government doesn’t use it as an excuse for further cuts in alcohol services, of course.

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