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United Kingdom: Don’t let the public health zealots demonise us innocent drinkers

United Kingdom: Don’t let the public health zealots demonise us innocent drinkers


The new guidelines are not intended to stand alone – they are part of a net of repressive policies


Source: The Telegraph

By Charles Moore

8 Jan 2016


On Thursday night, I came home to the welcome sight in the hall of six cases of wine which I had ordered at competitive January prices from the admirable Wine Society. “This will do us well till Lent”, I thought. When I watched the news a little later I realised I had just been inspecting my entire year’s allowance under the new alcohol guidelines – 72 bottles (at ten units per bottle) being only .8 of a bottle short of the upper limit of 14 units a week which has now been imposed on men.


My first reaction – and, indeed, my later and my final one – was not to believe the Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, and her Guidelines Development Group. This is not, by the way, because I think anxieties about drink are all a fuss about nothing. I have known several people who have died of drink, quite a lot more who have been made seriously ill by it, and a much larger number whose personalities have undramatically but distressingly disintegrated because of it. Whenever I go to a party, I encounter such people, and not only when I look in the mirror.


“Public health zealots, like extreme environmentalists, work always to construct a net of public policies that will eventually ensnare whatever group it is they dislike”


No, my disbelief is because I sense a political motive rather than a medical one. Not party-political, of course (although I would be surprised if the majority of the group were not Labour voters). I mean politicised campaigners who see industry as bad, consumers as stupid, government as good, and themselves as legislators to compel the public to behave in certain ways. Since I suspect such people’s motives, why should I accept the objectivity of what they say about health?


One member of the guidelines group is Professor Gerard Hastings. He is not a scientist or a doctor. He is director of the Institute of Social Marketing at the University of Stirling and is keen on investigating food and pharmaceutical marketing and helping litigation against the tobacco industry. He is also, says the Public Health Research Consortium of which he is a member, “very interested in real world and multi-faceted interventions that attempt to build brands with stakeholders and the public at large”. To the extent that I understand, through the jargon, what this interest is, I don’t share it. I don’t see why Prof Hastings should be telling me how much wine is bad for me. Why can he be allowed to do so just because he disapproves of people selling drink, tobacco and sweets and makes his living that way? If he can be on the panel, why can’t someone who makes or sells drink? A pub landlord will, after all, be just as well acquainted (better, actually) with which human beings drink too much and why.


On the Today programme yesterday, Dame Sally herself defended the new alcohol guidelines. Towards the end, the conversation switched from alcohol to a sugar tax, the latest craze. She signed off thus: “I have already put industry on notice that if they don’t respond in other ways, we’re going to have to have a sugar tax.”


This remark showed a striking conception of the role of Chief Medical Officer. Dame Sally’s job is advisory and (as its name suggests) medical. You might think that medical knowledge would not necessarily qualify the holder of the post to pronounce on tax policy, let alone to impose it. Yet Dame Sally herself seems to feel no hesitation. She has no conception that MPs, elected by voters, are the ones who decide taxes. The less a person like that is listened to, the better.


Most of us probably imagine that medicine is objective, driven simply by scientific fact. But if you study its history, you will see how closely its practice relates to wider political, moral or religious beliefs. In the 19th century, for example, doctors often thought that masturbation would make people blind. This was surely because sexual morality at the time considered it impure, so they medicalised it. Early theories about autism came up with the idea of the “refrigerator mother” whose coldness had damaged her children. This can now be seen to have reflected beliefs about the role of women rather than facts about the autistic condition.


In modern times, new orthodoxies – different, but equally severe – have taken root. Compare, for example, public health attitudes to safety in different subjects. Medical opinion today fiercely counsels against any smoking whatever, and some of it even deplores e-cigarettes lest they drag the user down into the pit of tobacco iniquity.


In the case of HIV/Aids, however, medical experts consistently resisted advocating abstinence from anal sex with multiple partners, since that might appear “homophobic”. Although condoms are far from infallible, “safe sex” was (and is) promoted. This week, by contrast, it was officially pronounced for the first time that “there is no such thing as safe drinking”.


“Unlike smoking which is – though people should be free to do it – unambiguously bad for you, drinking is subtle”


Critics of the new guidelines have already pointed out some of their defects – how they depend too heavily upon research at the University of Sheffield conducted by those committed to the minimum pricing of alcohol (another entirely political, unscientific cause); how they concentrate so much on cancer risk that they play down alcohol benefits for the heart; how they show no sense of proportion about what we mean by risk; how binge-drinking is less of a problem than it was 20 years ago.


But something more important is being missed. These guidelines are not intended to stand alone. They are twists of a ratchet. Public health zealots, like environmentalist ones, work always to construct a net of public policies that will eventually ensnare whatever group it is they dislike.


The model in their minds is tobacco. Having succeeded in virtually outlawing smoking, they want to do the same with alcohol. If they can create the public “fact” that there is no such thing as safe drinking, they can then attack everyone who brews, distils, makes wine, or runs a pub, club or restaurant, for pushing something which is unsafe.


They can also have a go at anyone who advertises any of the above, and insist on health warnings and, later, bans. They can assail plays on television which show drinking as glamorous or even normal. They can attack the Queen for serving wine at state banquets and charities which give fund-raising drinks parties. Years ago, the great satirist Peter Simple, in these pages, invented the concept of “passive drinking”: I have seen it perfectly seriously taken up by the anti-alcohol lobby. No more cups o’kindness on New Year’s Eve, unless it be between consenting adults behind closed doors, or in special pens like those now provided for smokers.


And then – flushed with success, though not with wine – future Dame Sallies can make it possible to sue anyone who has ever sold anyone a drink, and have any child removed from its parents if they exceed their units.


Unlike smoking which is – though people should be free to do it – unambiguously bad for you, drinking is subtle. It has its benefits and its dangers. It is a joy of civilisation, and a threat to it. It is like human life, in fact, and therefore peculiarly unsuited to policies of repression.


Good charts: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/12090284/Dont-let-the-public-health-zealots-demonise-us-innocent-drinkers.html