The government’s chief advisor on health ignored more than 80 studies to produce her new Puritanical guidelines on booze – which asks Britons to forego their Friday drink.
Civil servant Dame Sally Davies has drawn up the lowest recommendations in the West: there is no “safe drinking level”, her team declared.
The question is what justification was used to get there. The answer isn’t pretty for “evidence based” policy.
Repeated studies have shown that alcohol in moderation prolongs life: it reduces the risk of heart disease and strokes. In fact the benefits of alcohol in preventing strokes and heart disease are far clearer than the negatives of drinking.
"Four out of five cohort studies showed statistically significant reduction of all causes of mortality between 15 per cent and 25 per cent for moderate drinking,” notes one metastudy, with moderate drinking defined as men who drink about three pints a day and women who have two glasses of wine a day.
If three pints a night sounds a lot today, then that’s because of the almost imperceptible ratchet effect that public health policy has had in distorting risk. The guidelines in the 1960s, Christopher Snowdon points out, declared that a bottle of wine a day was fine. The natural conclusion of the health policy is that all alcohol is unsafe – which is the caveat added to today’s new guidelines.
The proposed guidelines – you have until April to complain about them – focus heavily on a cancer scare. It’s one we’ve heard before. In fact, neither the cancer scare nor the “unsafe at any level” recommendation have any scientific justification.
As Snowdon finds, Davies ignored over 80 studies and metastudies showing the same J-curve of risk. If you drink nothing, you’re at greater risk of heart disease, strokes and living a shorter life than a drinker. The health risk falls for moderate alcohol consumption, with optimal consumption of around 20g (two pints a day for me), then rises for heavy drinkers.
Yet even here, the researchers found a RR (relative risk) of below 1.0 for almost all groups. Davies simply threw out the evidence that didn’t fit what she wanted to say (i.e. almost all of it) and highlighted the evidence that did.
As Snowdon shrewdly observes, the alcohol guidelines aren’t written for the public, which will simply ignore them, but serve a different purpose. They’re intended to show the public health lobby how “virtuous” the government is. It’s virtue signalling – the UK can show the world that it’s the most moral guy in the room. Just as it’s the most moral at “fighting climate change”, “being digital” or spending money on foreign aid.
Some or all of these things may not matter to you – but they matter to bureaucrats and diplomats when they meet on a junket.
If you’re wondering who pays for this mini-industry of Puritans, then you don’t have to look far, as I discovered in 2012 by examining the history of a Victorian society which began life in 1852 as the “United Kingdom Alliance to Procure the Total and Immediate Legislative Suppression of the Traffic in All Intoxicating Liquors”. It’s still going, only now it’s called the Alliance House Foundation, or AHF. The AHF funds the Institute for Alcohol Studies, which is giddy with excitement today – but wants the cancer scare to be amplified.
The largest funder of the AHF is the European Union. In other words, it’s you.
Having reached this far in the article, we think you've earned your Friday pint. ®