The Baby Boomer booze panic
Where once the headlines would be about binge-drinking youngsters fighting, vomiting or just collapsing in our town centres, a much more prevalent scare in recent years has been about middle-aged and older drinkers getting plastered every night in the comfort of their own homes.
The latest intervention in this intoxicating panic is a new article in the British Medical Journal. The authors, Rahul Rao from the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and Ann Roche of the National Centre for Training and Addiction at Flinders University in Australia, write: ‘In both the UK and Australia, risky drinking is declining, except among people aged 50 years and older. There is also a strong upward trend for episodic heavy drinking in this age group.’ Rao and Roche also claim that substance misuse in general – including both prescription and illegal drugs – is on the rise.
Overall, boozing has been in decline, particularly among younger people, while abstinence has become more common. The Office for National Statistics has been keeping a time series since 2005, and the number of teetotallers in 2016 was the highest recorded. But older people still like a drink – and the wealthier they are, the more likely they are to have a tipple, with people earning over £40,000 per year drinking the most.
Is the handwringing about older drinkers really justified? The Health Survey for England suggests that 55- to 64-year-old men drink an average of 12.7 units of alcohol per week – below even the parsimonious government guideline of 14 units. Just five per cent drink more than 50 units per week – and even this ‘higher risk’ level is by no means automatically dangerous. In the same age group, women average just six units per week and just three per cent drink more than 50 units per week.
Yes, of course, there are people with serious drinking problems, but they are very much the exception. The alarm surrounding the Baby Boomer booze panic seems distinctly misplaced, reflecting the obsessions of public-health officials more than any actual health risks. And, to the extent that heavy drinking is a concern, an illiberal policy like minimum unit pricing (already approved by the Scottish parliament but currently blocked by EU competition laws) will have little effect on relatively well-off heavy drinkers. Instead, it will just make it harder for the rest of us to enjoy a bottle of cheap plonk.
If someone loses the ability to control their drinking, let’s help them. But the vast majority of us know our limits – unlike the temperance lobby.
Rob Lyons is a spiked columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @Robspiked