Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Binge boozing

As the party season gets underway, official concern about how much we drink is on the rise. 'Britain counts cost of binge drinking', says ITV News, reporting a Cabinet Office study which claims that alcohol abuse costs Britain 20billion a year. According to government statistics, 6.4million people in the UK are 'moderate-to-heavy' drinkers and 1.8million more are 'heavy drinkers'. The Stroke Association says that binge-drinkers double their risk of having a stroke. The authorities are especially concerned at the rising levels of binge drinking among young women.

However, the same Cabinet Office report notes that, while drinking levels have been rising since 1945, they are still substantially below consumption levels in 1900. Per capita consumption in the UK is still lower than that in Ireland, France and Germany (the top boozers in Europe are Luxembourg). In fact, most of the population drinks less than the abstemious levels recommended by the Department of Health, and 4.7million Brits are teetotal.

Binge drinking is defined as drinking twice the recommended daily allowance in one sitting. For men, this means roughly four pints of ordinary-strength beer or one bottle of wine. For women, it means three pints or two-thirds of a bottle of wine. While drinking to excess frequently is certainly a bad idea, these definitions of binge drinking lump together ordinary social drinking with alcoholism. Some people at the Department of Health clearly need to get out more.

The scare stories about strokes are a classic example of confusing relative and absolute risk. The Stroke Association may be correct about the increased relative risks - and stroke is one of the most common causes of death in the UK. But the absolute risk of stroke for anyone who is not old is very low. Government statistics for the period 1994 to 1998 reveal that there were 0.2 cases per 1000 people of stroke in the 0 to 35-year age group each year. Even if a young person's annual risk of stroke doubled, it would still be only 2500-to-1. In 1998, for example, there were just 130 cases of stroke among the millions of people under 35.

What is most striking is the moralistic tone of the discussion, and the contempt for any hint of risky or reckless behaviour among the young, particularly young women. But incapable of laying down a moral standard about alcohol, the government hides behind health campaigns and junk science. The vast majority of young drinkers will suffer no more than a bad hangover and the occasional embarrassing moment. They won't have a stroke - even if they walk and talk like they have.

Britain counts cost of binge drinking, ITV News, 20 December 2003
Alcohol Misuse: Interim Analytical Report, Prime Minister's Strategy Unit
Stroke warning to binge-drinkers, BBC News, 16 December 2003

(first published on Spiked)