Beers, low and no (alcohol)

It’s been a bit beery recently. First, I wrote for the Club Soda blog about the low and no alcohol beers available in Finland. Things have moved on while I’ve been away, and the choice is really rather good these days, and the taste (mostly) very pleasing too.

And last week, for Nudging Pubs, I had a quick look at the number of lower alcohol beers on offer at the Great British Beer Festival, CAMRA’s annual real ale and cider celebration. In this case, I wasn’t very impressed…

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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.

Two views on behaviour change

I was at the Food Matters Live exhibition again today. We tasted lots of drinks for Club Soda’s dry January programme The MOB, which will again have non-alcoholic drink reviews/suggestions for every day of the month. Our tastings included camel’s milk (disappointingly very similar to cow’s milk), half a dozen tree sap drinks (varying quality), and a countless number of “healthy” fruit juice drinks (healthy to very varying degree I would say…). We also tried an “oxygen” drink, which is basically a fruit juice that has been foamed. Rather heroic health benefits were made for this concoction as well. I do get that oxygen is very good for you, but I’m not sure eating/drinking it is the best way of absorbing the goodness.

A panel discussion on food and behaviour change had Ben Goldacre and Richard Wiseman on it. BG’s opening was a very good brief statement on how most of the misleading media stories on food and health actually come from academia (in particular press releases). He noted that clean, good quality information is the first thing that is needed by consumers if they want to eat a healthier diet. And that requires good evidence-based quidance from the experts.

RW talked a bit about health information and messaging as well. “Keep it simple, keep it positive” was his summary. We as humans like simplicity and positivity. So far so not controversial.

Where things got more interesting was around the “what is to be done” question. BG was quite adamant that the main issues are top-down: society and culture need to change so that people can more easily make healthier choices. RW on the other hand insisted that there are still small choices everyone can make, despite the social pressure for fatty and sugary treats (this difference came about while discussing children, and children’s parties’ catering in particular).

Hmm. I will now make a horrible generalisation, and probably libel many good people (including BG who I have a lot of time for). But there is probably something here, between a stereotypical doctor and a humble psychologist. An “I will tell you what is best for you and you will do exactly so” versus an “I will try to help you to make better (but not perfect) decisions for yourself”? I would take the latter any day myself.