Target: Alcohol

I happened upon this item from across the pond at Zythophile, who appears to be a soul mate when it comes to disliking neo-prohibitionists and their attendant propaganda. The UK’s Times Online made a rather startling, if not altogether surprising, revelation that the Department of Health in Great Britain, in defining what it means to be a “hazardous drinker” in 1987 did so by essentially just making it up and pulling the numbers out of thin air. I’ll let that sink in. As the Times’ article puts it, the “guidelines have no basis in science. Rather, in the words of a member of the committee that drew them up, they were simply ‘plucked out of the air’.” The twenty year-old standards by the Royal College of Physicians set “safe limits” at 21 units of alcohol a week for a man and 14 for a woman, apparently without regard to weight so far as I can tell. Britain defines one unit of alcohol as “8 grams of pure ethanol.”

In the article, a doctor involved in creating the standard, reminisces:

Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal and a member of the college’s working party on alcohol, told The Times yesterday that the figures were not based on any clear evidence. He remembers “rather vividly” what happened when the discussion came round to whether the group should recommend safe limits for men and women.

“David Barker was the epidemiologist on the committee and his line was that ‘We don’t really have any decent data whatsoever. It’s impossible to say what’s safe and what isn’t’.

“And other people said, ‘Well, that’s not much use. If somebody comes to see you and says ‘What can I safely drink?’, you can’t say ‘Well, we’ve no evidence. Come back in 20 years and we’ll let you know’. So the feeling was that we ought to come up with something. So those limits were really plucked out of the air. They weren’t really based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee.”

Well how scientific. And I’d think all well and good if it were just a guideline, some advice to tell a patient. But, of course, that’s not how the government used these numbers. They instead not only endorsed the numbers — and indeed why shouldn’t they having come from a supposedly reputable health organization — they essentially set them in stone, terrorizing citizens with them the same way America’s health bureaucracy does likewise by defining binge drinking at a ridiculous “five or more drinks in a row.”

Not only that, but they continued to cling to the numbers as gospel, despite numerous subsequent studies that contradicted those numbers. For example, here are the results of a 2000 study by the World Health Organization:

The WHO’s International Guide for Monitoring Alcohol Consumption and Related Harm set out drinking ranges that qualified people as being at low, medium or high-risk of chronic alcohol-related harm. For men, less than 35 weekly units was low-risk, 36-52.5 was medium-risk and above 53 was high-risk. Women were low-risk below 17.5 units, medium between 18 and 35 and high above 36.

Government bureaucracy has a habit of becoming entrenched even in the face of contrary evidence. At least one blogger I respect sees this as no big deal, that everyone simply knew the numbers were made up. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so bothered by that if I didn’t strongly believe my own government, in collusion with Big Pharma and much of the guilt-ridden medical community, has been lying — and continues to lie — to my face about my own son Porter’s autism. I think it’s a mistake to take lying so cavalierly, especially when it comes from an area of society that we’re conditioned to place great trust in: the medical community. The Hippocratic Oath was undoubtedly a good start, but the more I learn about the way doctors, their protectionist professional groups, along with medical insurers, pharmaceutical companies, hospital administrators and the like manipulate patients and society at large for their own purposes, the more that oath seems hypocritical and largely an anachronism in our modern world that medical science seems quick to ignore whenever it doesn’t suit them.

I think it’s precisely because people tend to trust doctors and so-called medical science that they often can’t conceive of it being used as propaganda or to support an extreme agenda. And that’s why I find this sort of lying so dangerous. We may take for granted that our government will lie to us or that people trying to persuade us of something might do likewise, but I don’t see how that makes it acceptable or something we shouldn’t get worked up about. Have we really all been lied to so much that we no longer recognize it? That it becomes acceptable if it’s for our own good? I can see how telling a fib to a child to keep him or her safe as a temporary solution has some merit, but if we don’t fess up when they get older, that’s an entirely different matter. Though personally, I think nowadays we overprotect children and go too far in trying to keep them from experiencing any adversity. As a result, they are incapable of dealing with even the smallest slight as young adults. This also makes it easier for our own government to continue becoming more and more paternalistic as each successive generation becomes increasingly comfortable with being told what to think and within what narrow range is acceptable. We’re all adults and yet more and more governments treat their citizens like children to be taken care of instead of allowing everyone to have a real say in decisions made on our behalf. That’s a classic example of a slippery slope. If you accept one lie because you believe it’s for your own good, then it becomes easier for you to accept the next one, and the next one after that, etcetera. I find this whole subject fascinating, and if you want to read more about it, I recommend Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, by Sissela Bok, and The Liar’s Tale, A History of Falsehood, by Jeremy Campbell.

As usual, I’ve veered off on a tangent, so let’s hear from another British doctor who also conveniently believes that the specific limits are superfluous.

Christopher Record, a liver-disease specialist at Newcastle University, suggested that “it doesn’t really matter what the limits are”. “What we do know is, the more you drink, the greater the risk. The trouble is that we all have different genes. Some people can drink considerably more than [the limits] and they won’t get into any trouble.”

Well that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. That means using a standard that doesn’t work is useless and counter-productive for predicting how a person will react to a given amount of alcohol. And if government continually uses false statistics to manage its population, it does them great harm, both psychologically and possibly physically. It would be one thing if for the last twenty years health officials told people that drinking too much had dire consequences and advocated that people take care in that regard. That would be quite sensible and without question in the public interest. But that’s not what the health agencies did. Instead, they made up a number and told people not to drink more than this amount or there would be dire health consequences, knowing full well that the the levels they set had no basis in science whatsoever.

I’m confident that our own definition of binge drinking had a similarly unscientific genesis and I know how that definition has been used to skew statistics toward a specific agenda by neo-prohibitionists. I would be shocked to learn that our British cousins never did likewise. When you officially and purposely set what it means to be a heavy drinker at a level you know to be too low, you can claim with a straight face that there are many more alcoholics plaguing society than there really are. Armed with these false statistics, committed anti-alcohol organizations can do a lot of harm to society.

I’m not entirely sure why governments tend to embrace neo-prohibitionist agendas, but Zythophile’s hypothesis bears examining.

My personal guess is that too many politicians — and members of public health committees — are in the game because they want to control others, and they associate drinking with loss of control, and therefore want to stop it: except they know, after the failure of prohibition in the United States, that stopping people drinking is impossible, and so they try to make us feel as guilty as possible about one of life’s best pleasures.

But whether they meant well or were being maliciously manipulative, this sort of lying by those entrusted with the public health is pretty hard to swallow.


  1. says

    It is simple. People/politicians want to be popular. They get more popular by getting attention.
    They get attention by talking about things people want to hear about. When people look at
    them and say “Yeah, your right! Beer is evil.” the cycle begins again.

    I guess we just need to keep teaching the world the truth about beer. Then instead of saying,
    “Yeah, your right! Beer is evil.”. They would say, “Give me a break. Talk about something
    interesting and important.”

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