Dismissing decades of research on alcohol and health, the UK’s new stringent guidelines on drinking bring to mind a quote from champagne lover Sir Winston Churchill: “Statistics are like a lamppost to a drunk; used more for support than illumination.” In announcing the new policy, England’s chief medical officer and neo-prohibitionist Sally Davies scorned the idea that a daily glass of wine could be healthy, proclaiming it an “old wives’ tale” and suggesting a cup of tea instead. The policy is said to be based on the latest statistics, but do these truly shed any new light? We are hardly in the dark about the effects of wine on health, with many thousands of research papers on record.
Davies’ fundamental mistake is to judge all types of drinking the same while focusing the outcome narrowly on cancer, failing to consider the opposite: that an equally narrow focus on wine drinkers might have different outcomes when overall health is concerned. Nothing in the “latest data” counters the fact that on average, people who drink wine with meals on a daily basis outlive nondrinkers, are healthier, and enjoy a higher quality of life by objective measures. Davies’ advice to avoid any drinking at all several days a week is similarly imprudent as it can only serve to encourage bingeing instead of healthy drinking. All types of drink are not the same, and all types of drinking are also varied in their effect on health.
The policy shines a spotlight on alcohol and cancer where broad daylight is needed in order to see the whole picture. But even here the statements in the new policy take liberties with the facts, with assertions such as “no level of alcohol consumption is safe” while acknowledging in the same document that drinking within the guidelines carries the same cancer risk as not drinking. But even that self-contradictory statement oversimplifies the question, because the relationship is nonlinear; for wine, many disease conditions including most types of cancer plot out on a J-shaped curve. In other words the risk is lower for moderate drinkers, then about the same, and increasing rapidly with heavy drinking. Unfortunately for the Brits and their pub culture, the J curve is shallower for beer. Unfortunately for the new policy, it similary fails when alternating drinking and teetotaling.
Perhaps the UK would do well to heed Churchill’s view on drinking: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”