The last week or so has seen some pretty strong debate around the proposed alcohol guidelines published by the Chief Medical Officer. I’d sort of assumed that, like many news events, this debate would be replaced by another issue after a day or so, but in fact a letters debate was still being printed in The Guardian on Thursday 14th January – almost a week after the guidelines came out.
This debate, as I predicted when the guidelines were released, seems to have involved people talking past each other, often from ill-informed or inconsistent positions. The letters to The Guardian are a case in point, so I want to spend some time here talking their criticisms through.
I should start by acknowledging my personal position in this, as I think this is important in how we react to guidelines. I drink between 20 and 30 units most weeks – about 3 pints on each of Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. (For those of you who are wine drinkers, this works out at more than 2 or 3 bottles a week.) I drank more than the ‘old’ guidelines, and I certainly drink more than the ‘new’ guidelines, as the threshold for men has been lowered.
I often feel torn on alcohol issues. Thinking of a similar discussion about older people’s drinking, you could say I took a different position, challenging Jackie Ballard on her assertion that older people’s health would inevitably be damaged by increased levels of alcohol consumption. The evidence we’d just been presented with flatly contradicted this point (which is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of risk and uncertainty). There’s also a danger that if you tell people a certain level of consumption will definitely cause health damage they’ll switch as off, because they’ll probably know someone who drinks at that level and hasn’t suffered any harm. That’s the nature of risk.
Equally, though, I’ve been quite supportive of the guidelines released this week, which have had exactly the same objections thrown at them. I value having them even while I’m not exactly in step with their model of low-risk behaviour.
But I think this feeling of being unsure is appropriate – alcohol can be both pleasure and poison, even at the same time. If we’re comfortable with a simple, coherent position, we’re probably missing something.
More than this, though, there is a difference between telling people what to do and giving them information. It’s exactly why I welcome the advice, but don’t stick to the low-risk limits.
Jackie Ballard was wanting older people to drink less, and wanting to tell them so, based on what I saw as a misreading of the evidence. This is exactly what the Chief Medical Officer and related researchers have been accused of in the past week or so, but in fact I’d suggest they’re doing something quite different. They’re trying to offer information about risk to guide individual decisions. (And this information only related to medical risk – so you may wish to balance it against the physical or social pleasures of drinking.)
14 units a week or less would be a good level for everyone to drink at from a public health perspective, considering overall population health outcomes like hospital admission rates, but it’s up to each individual to judge whether that sort of health improvement is of any interest to them.
There seems to be a school of thought that thinks because giving advice is difficult, we shouldn’t do it at all. That is, each person has different genetic and environmental factors that will influence their level of risk, and so it’s impossible to give a single risk figure for all people in the population, making any single figure misleading.
But my response to this is that we use these single approaches in all sorts of elements of life. We set a single age of criminal responsibility (apart from in exceptional cases), even though we know people’s maturity and powers of reasoning vary considerably. We set a single speed limit even though different cars and drivers have different stopping distances. In terms of health and lifestyles, we give single figures for recommended exercise or fruit and veg consumption. I’m not saying these are all the right way to approach these issues, but the idea of a single target or recommendation is not unique to alcohol guidelines, or even unusual. It’s a standard approach to advising and governing behaviour.
I would argue that if we’re making decisions that affect our health, it’s helpful to know the best information possible about how that might happen.
This is why I think the letter written by Jack Winkler, Emeritus professor of nutrition policy, London Metropolitan University, is wrong when it complains that we need a more complex response, ‘not just admonitions’.
In fact, it could be seen as dishonest to provide medical professionals with tools by which to screen people for problematic alcohol consumption, and then not give drinkers themselves access to the same information.
One main argument – put forward by Sally Caswell previously and Chris Hackley more recently – seems to be that giving out limits puts the onus on the individual to manage their own risk, and distracts from lobbying from more effective controls on price, availability and so on.
As I’ve noted before – and did when these guidelines came out – there is a genuine concern that recent trends in government policy focus too much on individual decision-making, neglecting the wider context that shapes these decisions. (This is what is generally meant by neo-liberalism in a social policy context.) So I’m sympathetic to the idea that guidelines could distract from other elements of the alcohol policy picture.
However, I’d draw attention to Nick Heather’s response to this. The simple answer is that if alcohol is legal and available in any form, individuals will be making decisions about how much to consume and in what format, pattern and setting. These decisions unquestionably affect a person’s risk of health harm. And there is, unavoidably, a certain sense of responsibility. This is not simply ‘victim blaming’, but an awareness that we make our own decisions, though not always in circumstances of our own choosing (to badly paraphrase Marx).
Chris Hackley has responded by pointing out that the research is already out there, so why have (simplifying and misleading) guidelines?
But these letters to The Guardian show that even making the research available alongside the guidelines doesn’t mean it will be read and understood.
David Lewis from York writes that “The guidelines conveniently ignore the evidence around the cardioprotective and neuroprotective effects of moderate alcohol consumption.” They absolutely don’t. There’s careful discussion of this in the Sheffield model, and that’s part of why the guideline isn’t set at zero despite the fact that for many conditions there is no ‘safe’ level of consumption.
Dr John J Birtill from Guisborough in North Yorkshire states that the guidelines “tell us nothing about how much longer the non-drinkers will live on average, the range of this extra life expectancy, the quality of life during the extra years, or the likely alternative causes of death. The lifetime benefit of abstention might be rather small compared to the lifetime pleasure of moderate alcohol consumption.”
In themselves, perhaps they don’t; they’re just low-risk guidelines. And any condensing leads to interpretation. But the report they’re written into does talk about precisely these issues, and the Sheffield report gives even more detail. These things aren’t being hidden; they’re part of the discussion.
And the whole point of Millian liberalism is that the individual is best placed to decide about their own ‘pleasure’ in various activities, so it would be odd if the state stepped in and said this is where the perfect equilibrium lies. This correspondent seems to be objecting the fact that the state hasn’t done this, at the same time as complaining that effectively it has. I’m confused.
Some of those writing in are clearly highly motivated to find out about this issue, and highly qualified, seeing as they’re listed as doctors and professors. And yet they’ve failed to read (let alone understand) what’s already available and clearly signposted. So what hope would the rest of us (most of whom aren’t actually that interested in the detail) have of finding out and understanding without providing these simple guidelines?
So I still can’t see what harm having guidelines does. And if we’re having them, what’s so wrong about something that gives the level at which you’re taking the same risk as the average car driver?
Sure, they don’t deal with all the myriad problems alcohol can cause. And they won’t be effective for everyone. And they aren’t the only policy tool available.
But while alcohol is legal, isn’t guidance on risk something a consumer should reasonably expect to be given? In fact, we even give this kind of guidance about ‘safer’ consumption levels/patterns/settings with illegal drugs: always use with other people; never share or re-use injecting equipment; smoke rather than injecting; reduce your dosage after a period of abstinence; and so on. Maybe alcohol users deserve the same courtesy we grant users of other substances?