It’s amazing how easy it is to persuade us that what we want to be true is true. Consider a typical headline to a story covered with great enthusiasm by many major news organisations this week: “Moderate alcohol consumption may lower stress, reduce heart disease risk, study finds.” Enthusiastic drinkers, drowning in a dark sea of health warnings, will cling on to such words as stricken sailors might hold on to the hull of their capsized boat.
They will turn a blind eye to the facts of the story, although even the headline itself, with its “may” and its “study finds”, suggests this scientific revelation isn’t quite the slam dunk we might be hoping for. Once the study’s methodology and conclusions are outlined, it’s clear that the whole thing falls into the category of quite interesting, rather than this changes everything. But who needs that level of detail? If I’m so minded, there’s as much information in the headline as I’m ever going to want or need to support my long-cherished pet theory about drinking. “I knew it! I told you so! Drinking helps me deal with stress, ergo it eases the strain on my poor ticker, therefore I’ll live longer and more happily.” I’ll file this fact away along with that one about red wine being good for you, as good as a health drink.
The problem is that there are drinkers and industry PRs and libertarian anti-“nanny state” culture warriors who will be dredging up this story to drop into conversations many years from now. “Don’t you remember the study that showed …?” etc etc. And the headline above was quite responsibly written. Many aren’t. A quick search for similar stuff put out there in the last year or so by our mainstream media yielded some beauties. How about: “Beer is GOOD for you! Scientists claim two pints a day may slash your risk of dementia”? And extra marks here for a quite ghastly second mention just below it: “Drinking two pints a day slashed risk of the memory-robbing condition by a third.” Memory-robbing condition? Oh, please.
Also highly commended: “Cheers! Drinking beer makes you happier and healthier than if you are teetotal, scientists confirm.” Confirm, mark you. Not even a “may” or a “claim” to keep it honest. But first prize has to go to: “Drink ‘thousands of varieties of wine’ to boost immunity and improve mental health.” Whaaat? “Professor Tim Spector says wine is good for improving gut health and is high in polyphenols, a group of natural defence chemicals.”
Ah yes, Professor Spector. A very clever man and no mistake. I once interviewed him about his book concerning what we eat and how we individually process certain food types differently. All clever stuff, but I got the feeling he was somehow a different breed from the rest of us, being slim and wise and sensible in all matters. I couldn’t imagine him binge-eating anything and told him as much. He claimed otherwise but struggled to name anything specific he couldn’t stop himself pigging out on. In the end, the best he came up with was that he occasionally went a bit overboard troughing too many cashew nuts. Cashews? I rest my case.
So what was this advice to drink thousands of varieties of wine all about? Had he let himself go? I needn’t have worried: once again the headline was deflated by the story. It turned out that any more than a small glass or two at one sitting would negate whatever magic the wine was working on your gut health. At that rate of intake, it’s going to take him decades to drink enough of his thousands of varieties to put his theory to the test. Stay off the cashews, prof, and I’m sure you’ll live long enough to do it.
In an era when studies of anything and everything generate reams of data that are widely available, you’re likely to find something to support whatever you happen to believe in. Alcohol good, alcohol bad; Brexit good, Brexit bad; climate in crisis, climate OK; Earth round, Earth flat. The supporting data will be there for you somewhere. And, even better, someone will have published a story on it with a headline you can screenshot to cherish for ever.
The issue of alcohol use, groaning under the weight of social convention, vast commercial interests and its own addictive properties, is ripe for this kind of headline-based sophistry. But if you search up a list of news stories on the subject over the years you find, as with the climate crisis, an overwhelming consensus: alcohol is really quite bad for you, end of. Railing against this inconvenient truth, the smattering of contradictory offerings look comically desperate. There’s the plain unlikely – “Heavy drinkers healthier and happier in later years” – and the decidedly bemusing: “Alcohol ‘has benefits for older drinkers but young should go teetotal’”.
On the other side of the argument, to counter all this, the public health lobby takes an ever more severe position. The World Health Organization is now saying that when it comes to alcohol consumption, there is no safe amount that does not affect health. While this might be technically true, it also has an absurdity to it. As David Spiegelhalter, then professor for the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University, pointed out when England’s chief medical officer said something similar in 2018: “There is no safe level of driving, but the government does not recommend that people avoid driving. Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.”
Lost in all this there must be a simple, usable truth that can be widely understood and accepted. Something along the lines of Michael Pollan’s summation of his conclusions about diet: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In the spirit of that, I suggest the following: drink alcohol if you must, if you enjoy it, but not much of it. And ignore the bloody headlines.
- Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist. His book The Good Drinker: How I Learned to Love Drinking Less is out now in paperback
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Published: 2023-06-14 16:26:39