Saturday 29 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Henry Moore Gallery
The UK government recommends men limit their consumption of alcohol to 3 or 4 units a day, while women keep within 2 or 3 units, a unit being 8g or 1cl of alcohol. This recommendation underpins the government’s approach to alcohol policy and is implicit in responsible drinking initiatives supported by the drinks industry. Drinkers are encouraged to count their units much as dieters count their calories, and young people are taught from an early age to understand alcohol consumption in terms of units. Some even talk about how many units are ‘allowed’ rather than recommended. Meanwhile, doctors routinely ask patients ‘how much do you drink?’, even when it is seemingly irrelevant to our actual complaints. Does the idea of recommended limits make sense?
Critics argue the focus on chemically-defined quantities of alcohol is too crude, since it ignores such physical variables as body size, genetic differences, habituation to alcohol, how much drinkers have eaten and so on. A few pints might have no discernable effect on one person, but put another under the table. One member of the committee responsible for the recommended figures later admitted they were more or less ‘plucked out of the air’. Perhaps more importantly, though, unit-counting abstracts drinking from its cultural context – an alcoholic’s liquid breakfast is surely very different from a bottle of champagne to wet a new baby’s head. So should we make decisions about what constitutes ‘one too many’ based on cultural norms rather than the number of units?
Certainly the recommendations are jarringly at odds with the lived experience of drinking in Britain. Many if not most people who drink regularly get through considerably more than the recommended guidelines. Either they are too low to be credible, and should be raised or abandoned, or most people really are drinking too much and a serious cultural shift is necessary. The prevailing consensus in public health circles, and consequently in the media, is that the latter is true. So should we all cut down, or should we challenge the experts? After all, the recommended unit limits encourage just about all drinkers to think of their drinking as problematic, regardless of its actual effects on their health and lifestyle – and their own decisions about what risks are acceptable. Do public health initiatives fail to distinguish between genuinely problem drinking and normal drinking? Would it then be better, and more effective, to use commonsense, cultural standards to distinguish between normal and problem drinking, and scrap the idea of counting units altogether? Or are objective guidelines of some kind still the best way to help us all keep within sensible limits?
Listen to session audio:
associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)
|Dr Richard Smith|
chair of trustees, ICDDR,B; former editor, British Medical Journal; chair, Patients Know Best
|Professor Raymond Tallis|
fellow, Academy of Medical Sciences; author, philosopher, critic and poet; recent books include NHS SOS and Aping Mankind; chair, Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying
manager, UK government relations, SABMiller
director, civil liberties group, Manifesto Club; author, Officious: Rise of the Busybody State
We know that drinking too much alcohol is bad for us. It gives us hangovers, makes us feel tired and does little for our appearance - and that is just the morning afterwards.Philippa Roxby, BBC News, 2 October 2011
Maciej Dakowicz's pictures of Cardiff revellers are lapped up by a country that pictures itself as broken, boozing, morally sickJonathan Jones, Guardian, 24 September 2011
Activists, neo-prohibitionists and anti-capitalists are much happier blaming the corporations and the institutions, man, than looking at the real factors behind excessive drinking and alcoholism.Chris Snowden, Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, 22 September 2011
Under the Influence investigates how far parenting style affects those children’s drinking behaviour in later life. It analyses data of several thousand children from two separate data sets and compares how their parents raised them against the child’s drinking habits in adolescence and adulthood.Jamie Bartlett and Matt Grist, Demos, 17 September 2011
The old temperance movement was made up of working men who promoted self-control. Today booze-bashing is the preserve of a killjoy elite.Josie Appleton, spiked, 24 March 2011
Daily limits on alcohol consumption are meaningless and potentially harmful, experts have warned.Michelle Roberts, BBC News, 1 August 2009