The new inconvenient truth is that we should probably all give up alcohol – for good. Most of us will have a friend attempting dry January, swerving the demon drink for a month for varying reasons: to live more healthily, assuage festive guilt, avoid hangovers, save money or prove their willpower. Looking at the array of benefits, it makes perfect sense to stop drinking, doesn’t it?
Well, yes, but it won’t happen because alcohol permeates every aspect of our lives and has done so since time immemorial. For many of us, whether we are meeting with triumph or disaster, we treat those two imposters just the same – with alcohol. There is no such thing as a healthy drinking regime, with glowing twentysomething lifestyle bloggers extolling the detoxifying virtues of the single-estate gin diet.
When the alcohol guidelines were tightened at the start of January 2016 to 14 units for men and women (the limit for men was previously 21), there was an accompanying warning that consuming any amount of alcohol is unsafe. In truth, we all probably knew that. But we act with impunity, convincing ourselves that everyone drinks and they probably have more than us.
While a war has been declared on sugar, no such pressure is being put on alcohol. The voices in favour of minimum pricing, which has been rejected by the UK government, largely belong to health groups, the equivalent of the friend who doesn’t drink – you respect their views and they are probably right, but you’re having too much fun drinking to listen. Even warnings that 135,000 people will die of alcohol-related cancers in England by 2035 are insufficient to make teetotalism more than a niche lifestyle choice.
Alcohol can justifiably be described as the world’s most easily accessible mild poison. Its predominant ingredient, ethanol, is listed as a group one carcinogen by the World Health Organisation, along with asbestos, diesel fumes and radiation. But booze can still be bought for as little as 16p a unit. Even the ever-increasing prices of alcoholic beverages in pubs have not yet put people off; a pint of decent beer at my local costs about £5.50 and I fear I would probably shell out for it even if the price rose to £7, because it’s such an integral part of learned socialising.
There are signs that the tide may be turning in some areas. Drinking among young people (under the legal age) is falling, suggesting a number of things; they are altering their states of mind in other ways, or the persistent warnings about the malign effects of alcohol consumption are beginning to make headway. Nevertheless, “harmful drinking” has been identified among middle-class people in their 50s, supporting the hypothesis that older generations set the standard for Britons’ relationship with alcohol – a damaging one.
While alcohol is not so intrinsically linked to the world of work, certain careers are still associated with excessive consumption. When I worked for a tabloid newspaper a few years ago, we went for an hour-long “lunch break” after it had gone to press at about 10pm. It was one of my first shifts and my colleague, an experienced journalist in his 60s, asked what I would like to drink. I replied: “Whatever you’re having.” He said: “I’ll get a bottle of wine.” “Great”, I said, happy to share, before he replied: “And what do you want?”
There have been times in the past when I worried about my alcohol consumption. The morning when I had to use my Oyster card history and Google Maps data to find out how I got home the night before, for instance. But whether it’s the slow creep of a glass of wine to relax or a Friday blowout, alcohol is something many of us have a fundamentally flawed relationship with. Research last year led by Public Health England found that crime, ill health and lost productivity associated with drinking cost the UK up to £52bn a year.
There are measures that can be taken; minimum pricing in shops, something akin to Systembolaget in Sweden (a small network of shops with limited opening hours where alcohol above a certain ABV can be purchased), forcing manufacturers to acknowledge links to serious illnesses on alcohol packaging, and producing less strong beers. But barring a complete societal overhaul, the likelihood is that we will never change – whatever the cost to our health.
Originally published on The Huffington Post on January 27 2017.