Are you drinking enough?

The sound of clinking glasses must surely have been heard across the nation with the announcement that the government intends to relax its alcohol guidelines. Now, it is thought, the guidelines will say that moderate drinking is no riskier than driving a car.

The announcement marks quite a u-turn in official attitudes to drinking, considering that, in January this year, the public was told that no level of drinking was considered safe. Professor Dame Sally Davies, the UK’s first female chief medical officer, still contends that whenever she drinks a glass of wine she thinks of the increased risk of breast cancer – what brilliant fun she must be at parties.

Despite this more laid-back attitude to booze, the new government guidelines, published yesterday, still recommend that men cut back their drinking from 21 units per week to 14, the amount suggested for women. They also advise pregnant women, who had previously been told they could safely drink one or two units per week, to completely abstain. And, in a rather prophetic move, the new guidelines offer the same advice for women who ‘think they could become pregnant’.

Fourteen units is the equivalent of about six pints of lager or seven glasses of wine. We were helpfully reminded of this by press reports, because normal people measure drinks in glasses or bottles, not in scientific units. We’ve all encountered a medical form asking for our weekly alcohol-unit intake, had to Google it, and then go through a complicated calculation before subtracting the obligatory 10 units to avoid looking like an alcoholic. Surely an easier system could be introduced. How about describing weekly alcohol consumption under one of the following three headings: bit squiffy; quite wobbly; oh dear? That would paint a clearer picture.

Public-health bores want us to be afraid of alcohol. But this doesn’t make a lot of sense, considering the substantial amount of evidence that drinking in moderation has health benefits. It is what’s called a ‘J curve’: the risk of mortality is lower for people who drink moderately than for people who do not drink at all. The risk only starts to rise once drinking increases past a certain point; and you would have to consume a significant amount more than the weekly guidelines allow to reach the same risk of mortality as a teetotaller.

I am nothing if not meticulous in my research. So, having polished off my 14 units, I took the online Drinkaware quiz, ‘Are you drinking too much?’. I was told my drinking habits were ‘low-risk’, but not completely safe, ‘because drinking alcohol is never completely safe’. Given that drinking some alcohol is less risky than not drinking any, shouldn’t the website also provide a quiz for teetotallers titled, ‘Are you drinking enough?’.

While it is nice that the government has decided to stop scaremongering about the odd night down the pub, it would be nicer still if it realised that, while health information is useful, telling the public how many drinks they should have is not in its remit. Hopefully everyone will take the guidelines with a large pinch of salt – before downing a tequila shot.

Naomi Firsht is a writer and co-author of The Parisians’ Guide to Cafés, Bars and Restaurants.

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