Raise a glass of your finest wine to Sally Davies for telling us to drink much less
I raise a glass to propose the health of Dame Sally Davies. She is brave to recommend that we all drink much less. When I first heard the news, I wondered if this might just be a tipping point in our love affair with alcohol.
I should explain that I go back a long way with the demon drink. Quite by chance, my first real job was working in a psychiatric hospital with alcoholics. In the mid seventies, alcoholism was seen as a disease that bore no relation to how the rest of us enjoyed a drink.
In the mid eighties, I was running one of the first public health campaigns to promote the idea of sensible drinking levels for everyone. There was growing support for the idea that the incidence of alcohol problems was linked to the rising level of alcohol consumption. Then I moved to a new job in Newcastle and the rest is history.
I have continued to be bemused by our recreational use of a dangerous drug with ever greater abandon. As a nation and as a civilisation, the vast majority of us mange the stresses and strains of life in a partly pickled state.
If going fishing is the most popular participant sport, going drinking must be the most popular social activity. A huge industry does its best to encourage us to indulge. My convenience store gives over ever more space to the bottle department and bars in town give discounts for triples.
There is a considerable deficit cost of alcohol related accidents, injuries, crime and abuse estimated by Alcohol Concern at £21bn a year. The connection between social drinking and problem drinking is now taken for granted.
As a social historian, I wonder whether our obsession with alcohol will seem as strange in years to come as the gin palaces of the eighteenth century or the opium dens of the nineteenth century now seem today. Drugs of choice change.
Who would have predicted fifty years ago that smoking would have become so vilified, to the extent that I feel sorry for smokers huddled outside their office building or hospital ward. They get all the best gossip, a smoker colleague tells me.
The main reason for the decline in smoking was the increasingly strong evidence that smoking causes cancer. Smokers have a one in two chance of developing cancer. Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer of Health presents just the same evidence for alcohol consumption. Drinking even modestly increases the chance of cancer and about 60 other diseases.
In the first revision of ‘safe’ drinking limits for twenty years, informed by the latest scientific evidence studied over two years by panels of experts, we are advised to restrict alcohol intake to 14 units a week, for both men and women, and to have several alcohol free days each week. At this level, we have just under 1% chance of dying from alcohol use.
In bar room terms, this means an average of a pint of beer or a glass of wine a day. And this means that it will difficult to enjoy a night out or a meal with friends as we have come to know and love it. The new guidelines will take all the fun out of drinking.
No soon was the ink dry on her 44 page closely argued and referenced report, than the critics condemned Sally Davies as a party pooper promoting a nanny state. They say she wants to turn us into a nation of teetotallers just like a major in the Salvation Army.
This Dame is no zealot. She just says we should make up our own minds based on the best evidence available. We take a risk every time we cross the road and have to decide whether the risks of drinking even at modest levels are worth it.
The tipping point, according to the sociologist Malcolm Gladwell, is “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire”. It happened with unleaded petrol and with zero tolerance to crime in New York.
There is just a chance that the new guidelines will be a tipping point in how we drink alcohol especially if the government has the courage to take on the alcohol industry and commits the funds to back it. Remember that the point of a tipping point is that you do not see it coming.
The environmental campaigner George Monbiot argues we should only eat meat on high days and holidays. Livestock account for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions and bacon sandwiches bring on heart disease. There is no need to become a vegetarian as long as the beef is served up sparingly and, I suggest, accompanied with a very good glass of red wine.
I would like to see a society in which we become connoisseurs of fine wine, malt whisky and craft beers which are brought out on special occasions and not used as a pick me up tonic on tap. It would be a world in which the appalling cost and misery of alcohol problems has largely disappeared. Sally Davies’s report is a step in that direction. Cheers.
published in Newcastle Journal Mon 11th January 2016