Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Snowdon: We should stop panicking about Boozy Britain

In a change from their regularly scheduled rubbish ...

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

This gave Christopher Snowdon a chance to publish this superb article.

He begins by summarising the popular narrative about alcohol:
Here’s what everybody knows about Boozy Britain. As a nation we are drinking twice as much as we did sixty years ago. The double whammy of cheaper booze and 24 hour drinking has led to an epidemic of alcohol abuse which threatens to overwhelm the NHS. Alcohol-related hospital admissions have doubled in less than a decade and now stand at over one million per annum. Millions of us put our health in jeopardy by drinking more than the daily alcohol limits.
He then proceeds to present the facts:
Yes, we are drinking more than we did in the immediate post-war years. An economic depression sandwiched by two world wars reduced alcohol consumption to the lowest in our history, but austerity Britain can hardly be considered a typical reference point. Using more relevant benchmarks, we are drinking less than we did in 1914 and very much less than we did in previous centuries. We are drinking only marginally more than we did thirty years ago and—here is a seldom spoken truth—we are drinking less than we did in 2002.

Yes, there are millions of us who exceed our ‘daily limits’ (they’re actually weekly guidelines). How could we not? These guidelines were not based on any real evidence when they were set in 1987 and methodological changes have since dragged several million more of us over the line of ‘hazardous drinking’. Limits that do not allow for tipsiness, let alone drunkenness, deserve to be ignored and yet the percentage of men and women drinking above the ‘limits’ has still been falling for a decade, with the largest decline seen amongst young men.

How to explain the discrepancy?

It can be argued that per capita alcohol consumption is a poor marker for drunkenness, alcoholism and alcohol-related harm, but a doubling in alcohol-related admissions at a time of falling alcohol consumption should raise sceptical eyebrows. Sure enough, the number of medical conditions that are considered ‘alcohol-related’ has tripled during this period and the system of estimating them has undergone what the NHS calls a ‘substantial change’. Hundreds of thousands of hospital visits, predominantly involving the elderly, are now classified ‘alcohol-related’. Our ageing population guarantees further rises in ‘alcohol-related admissions’ in the future.

I thoroughly recommend the whole article.

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