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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
January 14, 2010



Drinking by numbers? It doesn’t add up

Yesterday the Tories came up with a plan to get rid of alcohol units and instead measure alcohol in centilitres. While using measurements that are actually in usage for other things may be marginally more sensible than making up something unique to alcohol, anyone who spotted this as a blatant piece of pre-election opportunism can give themselves a big tick.

I’ve never been a fan of alcoholic units, though. They have a dubious history. The idea of putting a number to how much people should drink begins, as far as I can tell, in 1979 in a report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists titled Alcohol and Alcoholism (thanks to James Nicholls and his new book The Politics of Alcohol for the details here). It recommended a safe drinking limit of (in beer) four pints a day, or eight units.

Today, of course, this is the limit that defines binge drinking. The current recommendations – 21 units a week for men, 14 for women - were the result, over the years 1986-87, of a consensus between the Royal Colleges.

It is, of course, an arbitrary figure. One of the doctors involved (bizarrely, the brother of comedian and recovering alcoholic Arthur Smith) gave a interesting account of the process in The Guardian in 2007.

What’s more, those involved know it’s an arbitrary figure. As James Nicholls puts it “Safe drinking limits were initially designed to provide a guideline for attitudes to drinking rather than reflect a medically quantifiable reality”.

Drinking limits, and the alcohol units that make them possible, are therefore political, not medical. They are designed to be a method of reducing overall alcohol consumption across the population, rather than targeting those who actually have a drink problem.

You often hear the phrase ‘nanny state’ at this point, but this gets it completely wrong. I never had a nanny, I’m proud to say, but I doubt that they’d  leave the kids a manual and then piss off to the pub. Which is effectively what this state is doing (although it’s spending its money on wars and stuff rather than boozing).

What’s going on here is actually an extreme form of the privatisation of health, taking it right down to the individual. We are supposed to take responsibility for our own health, and since we’re simple folk we need a simple formula.

Sadly this doesn’t work for most of those who do have a drink problem. Many of them clearly shouldn’t drink at all. We’re all different, you see, and we don’t live by numbers.

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