(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and stuff.co.nz, September 5.)
So – the latest word from health researchers is that no level of alcohol consumption can be considered safe.
Let’s set aside the fact that we’re constantly bombarded with health and diet studies which frequently contradict each other – to the extent that many people are inclined to disregard them all – and take this latest one at face value.
Superficially, the results of the survey, conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, look persuasive.
The researchers found that while alcohol might be beneficial in some circumstances, the benefits are outweighed by risks which increase regardless of how little is consumed.
Not surprisingly, they found that the risks start out small with one drink a day, then increase as people consume more – hardly a stop-the-presses revelation.
Their conclusion: going teetotal is the only sure way to avoid the risk of harm.
Okay then. Now let’s apply the same test to a range of other human activities.
Travelling by car, indeed any form of transport, carries the risk of injury or death on the road. Does that mean we never go anywhere? No.
Getting married carries the risk that the relationship will end in an ugly and painful divorce. Does that mean people stay single? No.
Playing sport carries the risk of injury and disability. Does that mean we would be healthier if we were a nation of couch potatoes? No.
Investing money carries the risk that the investment will go belly-up and we’ll lose financially. Does that mean we hide our savings under the mattress? No.
Travelling to exotic places carries the risk of life-threatening illnesses from eating dodgy food or cutting our feet on poisonous coral. Does that mean we stay at home? No.
The point is that life would be unbearably dull – even pointless – without the pleasure, satisfaction and achievement that come from doing things that entail an element of risk.
Most people manage that risk by taking sensible precautions. They weigh the risks against the rewards and act accordingly.
We don’t drive fast in cars with bald tyres and munted brakes. We try to choose the right life partners and do our best to resolve any conflict that arises in the relationship.
If we play rugby, we wear mouth guards and avoid head-high tackles. If we ski, we stay on the designated slopes. If we push beyond those (relatively) safe limits, we accept the risk and take responsibility for the possible consequences.
I could go on, but you get my drift.
Now, back to alcohol. Most New Zealanders drink responsibly. They understand that excessive consumption carries risk.
Even the so-called experts, who never miss an opportunity to lecture us on the perils of alcohol, grudgingly accept that the great majority of people drink in moderation.
Alarmists in the health sector like to focus on the 20 percent of alcohol consumers whom they classify as “heavy” drinkers, but their definitions are questionable.
The “safe” drinking limits that guided British alcohol policy for years weren’t based on any hard data, but were plucked out of the air by a Royal College of Physicians working party which didn’t really have a clue how much alcohol was safe.
In the United States, a female heavy drinker is now classified as one who has eight or more drinks a week. Is it a good idea to regularly have eight or more drinks a week? Probably not. But to claim that anyone who does is a heavy drinker seems over the top.
I know lots of healthy, sober women who would exceed that limit at least occasionally. They would be shocked at the thought that they were officially considered heavy drinkers.
But of course that’s the aim: to scare people into cutting back or giving up altogether.
The publicly-funded neo-wowsers are on a moral crusade, and they never let up. They don’t trust ordinary people to make sensible decisions about what’s safe.
Another problem with alarmist studies such as the one mentioned above is that, as a recent editorial in The Listener pointed out, the scare-mongers never take into account the beneficial aspects of alcohol, both social and economic.
In Western civilisation, alcohol has been regarded for centuries as a means of socialising, relaxing and celebrating. You’d think that might count for something, but no.
Oh, and one other thing. According to one analysis of that recent American survey, it means that in a population of 100,000 people aged 15-95, 918 people are at risk of developing one of 23 alcohol-related conditions in a year if they have a drink every day, against 914 people who are at risk of developing the same problems if they never drink at all.
I don’t know about you, but they’re odds that I’m prepared to risk.