Want to live longer? Drink more alcohol

In the government's relentless quest to reduce alcohol consumption, people will die younger than they would have done otherwise

One more for the road?
David Atherton
On 23 July 2012 08:37

Any person who has awoken from a coma from three years ago could be forgiven to think that Labour is still in power when it comes to alcohol.

Blue Labour in the shape of David Cameron, Andrew Lansley, and Anne Milton do more than passable imitations of Gordon Brown, Andy Burnham and Caroline Flint. Only this week the Commons Health Select Committee said that the alcohol industry is in the "last chance saloon" and will face heavier regulation if it does not discourage dangerous drinking. Amongst the gems include minimum priced alcohol endorsed by Cameron himself. From the publication these are direct quotes:

“The effects of marketing on alcohol consumption, in particular in relation to children and young people. 

The role of the alcohol industry in addressing alcohol-related health problems,

Reducing the strength of alcoholic beverages;

Raising the legal drinking age; and

Plain packaging and marketing bans.”

NHS Cumbria leads on the denormalisation of alcohol by suggesting separate supermarket tills for drinks, with Dr Nigel Calvert, associate director of public health in Cumbria saying: “We have to make it clear to shoppers that buying beer wine or spirits this is not a normal, routine purchase.”

Recently the anti alcohol industry has been chasing the airwaves with the same sound bite, “There is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol consumption. The idea that drinking small amounts of alcohol will do you no harm is a myth..” claims Professor David Nutt.

The Sydney Morning Herald reporting on a paper written by the Australian Cancer Council saying in the Medical Journal of Australia. “Forget safe drinking levels – any amount of alcohol could give you cancer. Alcoholic drinks and ethanol are carcinogenic to humans and there’s no evidence there’s a safe consumption threshold to avoid cancer….” 

The key questions on alcohol are, how much alcohol can you drink safely without inducing poor health, and what is the level of alcoholism? 

In my quest for some objectivity I am very grateful for Chris Snowdon’s blog Velvet Glove, Iron Fist and Dick Puddlecote’s too, who both keep to evidence-based writing.

Firstly, let’s consider what advice the government gives out.

Many of you I am sure are aware of the government’s guidelines on the number of units to drink a day. It is 3-4 units a day for men and 2-3 for ladies. Are you aware that there is no scientific basis for this advice whatsoever? It comes from the Royal College of Physicians' working party chaired in 1987 by the former editor of the British Medical Journal, Dr. Richard Smith. I believe Dr. Smith is an honest academic. On his blog he confirms that, “I achieved some notoriety about five years ago for telling a journalist that these limits were ‘plucked out of the air’.

So the UK government is not dealing with a full deck. In 2009 there were 491,348 deaths in England and Wales, 33 percent from heart disease and associated conditions and 29 percent from cancer. Heart disease is the UK’s number one killer. One of the anecdotal benefits of alcohol is the reduction in platelet aggregation, the clumping together of blood cells, possibly forming a clot and hence heart disease and attacks.  

In this graph from the British Medical Journal, out of the 31 studies, one showed an increase in heart disease, not statistically significant, two neutral, 11 protection, though not statistically significant but a staggering 17 which showed a statistically significant reduction in heart disease. This paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition confirmed that: “In subjects who drank alcohol, the odds ratio of a high response to aggregation was significantly reduced.“ 

This Danish study actually looks at people over a number of years as opposed to case controlled, where people suffering from a disease are asked to recount their lifestyle or in some cases, their relations'.

The details are: “Participants were 13,064 men and 11,459 women, aged between 20 to 98 years, from three Copenhagen studies. Information was obtained on alcohol intake and lifestyle. Participants were followed from study entry (1964, 1971 and 1976) until death or the end of the follow-up period (number of years not given). A total of 4,833 participants died. Of these, 1,075 died of coronary heart disease and 1,552 died of cancer.” 

The conclusion was that a drinker's mortality, if alcohol was consumed in moderation, was far lower than non-drinkers. 

Even the bon viveurs were not far worse off than the teetotalers. It appears no matter how much wine drinkers uncorked the bottle, they were better off. Beer drinkers were less so and spirit drinkers actually had increased mortality. This BMJ cohort of doctors concluded “The consumption of alcohol appeared to reduce the risk of ischemic heart disease, largely irrespective of amount. Among regular drinkers, mortality from all causes combined increased progressively with amount drunk above 21 units a week.”

A meta-analysis (combination) of 84 studies into alcohol and found “Secondary analysis of mortality from all causes showed lower risk for drinkers compared with non-drinkers (relative risk 0.87 (0.83 to 0.92)). Light to moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a reduced risk of multiple cardiovascular outcomes.” 

Let us look at a “control” group, those who drink little or no alcohol - people from South Asia. In 2007 the British government published “Ethnicity and Health.”  Its conclusions were on cardio-vascular disease.  

“Men born in South Asia are 50 percent more likely to have a heart attack or angina than men in the general population. Bangladeshis have the highest rates, followed by Pakistanis, then Indians and other South Asians. By contrast, men born in the Caribbean… have much lower mortality to coronary heart disease.” Pass me a Red Stripe please. I would also venture to say the South Asian diet of rice, vegetables and some meat is better than chips, takeaways and cream cakes of Brits.

Some of the studies did show an increase in cancer, but overall the drinkers lived longer. The increase in cancer could very easily be that drinkers simply live longer. Age is the biggest risk factor for cancer.

Sorry for this finger wagging paragraph but alcoholics and alcoholism are not an invention of the state or the health lobby. 

Alcoholic’s Anonymous as an organisation is sincere and is not a fake state funded charity and alcohol does have some desperate victims. Being topical, the British Tour De France winner Bradley Wiggins’ father was an alcoholic and so was my sports idol George Best. Both died in their fifties. The Institute of Alcohol Studies estimates that 7 percent of men drink 50 units or more a week and 3 percent of women drink more than 35 units a week. However if we combine the two implies that at least 95 percent of us drink alcohol responsibly.

In my first article I have reviewed the scientific literature for the consumption of alcohol and have found politicians and the Department of Health wanting.

Their desire to dictate to us how to live our lives and justify their salaries is appalling. In my next article I will go on to show that we drink notably less alcohol than we did ten years ago, the government has fiddled the units figures. Crime has decreased in the streets and neo-prohibition has spawned a new industry.

In its relentless quest to reduce consumption, people will die younger than they would have done. Philosophically I am convinced that Oliver Cromwell’s Puritanism (he even banned Christmas decorations) is a thread in the Anglo-sphere that exists three hundred and fifty years later. As H.L. Mencken wrote, "Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." 

David Atherton is Chairman of Freedom2Choose, which seeks to protect the informed choices of consenting adults on the issues of smoking

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