Alcohol units, risk, communication – and a whole load of nonsense

The UK Department of Health released their long-awaited updated guidelines on safe levels of alcohol consumption last week. The headline news was a small reduction on what is recommended as “safe” drinking for men, and that the limits are now the same for women and men. The predictable consequence was an avalanche of moaning. Pick any newspaper from that week and you will find a column inviting “the nanny state government” to come and take the poor oppressed journalist’s last bottle of wine, but only from their cold, dead hands. Yes, there was also some intelligent commentary on the findings and methodology of the review behind the new guidelines (David SpiegelhalterThe Stats Guy), but mostly it was all predictably sad, confused, and badly informed.

The reasons are not at all mysterious. (1) Alcohol is a touchy subject; most people in the UK drink, and any talk about the harms is taken as an accusation of their personal choices. (2) Risks are difficult to understand (and in this case they are also very difficult to estimate – the medical evidence itself is still far from settled). And as a consequence, (3) Risk information is difficult to communicate well.

There is not much that can be done about the first two. Which means that the third issue becomes even more important. I’m not sure how much better the publicity for this particular announcement could have been, but surely it can’t have come as a surprise that it was so badly received.

And for every journalist and pub commentator saying that their drinking never did them any harm, why not take a moment to consider the bigger picture. A small change in cancer risk might be acceptable to you personally, but from a public health perspective, looking at 50 million people in the UK, even a small reduction in alcohol consumption and therefore the number of future cancer cases will mean enormous savings for the health care system. That’s what the guidelines are all about.