If Dame Sally Davies had really wanted to be honest, she would have said: “Here’s my advice on how to live a possibly longer but almost certainly less pleasure-filled life …”
Instead the chief medical officer for England completely failed to address why people drink – because we enjoy it – and concentrated solely on why we shouldn’t, insisting that the new recommendations on alcohol limits were “hard science” based on the health risks of even moderate drinking. With the old guidelines for men, compared to the new lower ones, “an extra 20 men per 1,000 will get bowel cancer. That’s not scaremongering, that’s hard science.” But why did she say “20 per 1,000” instead of the equally accurate “two in a hundred”? Because 20 sounds worse than two, of course. Scaremongering …
I realised recently that it will be 50 years this summer since I first drank beer, in the garden of the Rose in Bloom in Seasalter, Whitstable. My father (illegally) bought a pint of bitter for me, thinking correctly, that though I was only just 14, I would enjoy it, and thank you, Dad, I did, greatly: that cellar-cool, floral, hoppy initial pint was the start of a lasting love. If Dame Sally Davies had popped up over the fence as I was drinking and assured me that I was increasing my chances of cancer of many kinds, I hope that my 14-year-old self would have replied: “If all the pints for the next 50 years are as good as this one, I genuinely don’t care.”
The point about risk is that, as we all see every day, it’s calculable, all right, but totally random. My mother hardly drank at all: a Snowball, advocaat and lemonade, at Christmas, with a cherry on a cocktail stick balanced across the glass, was her limit. She certainly never smoked. She died, aged 60, having survived breast cancer when she was 45 but eventually being taken out by cancer of the oesophagus. My brother – a cancer survivor himself, having come through Hodgkin’s Lymphoma nearly 40 years ago – still rides motor bikes at the age of 59, big ones, Harley Davidsons and the like, and in the past few years he has taken motorbike tours through South Africa and the eastern United States. For a rider, the chances of dying in a motorcycle crash during your lifetime are about the same as the chances of getting bowel cancer through drinking alcohol. Do we see Dame Sally Davies on daytime TV urging us to cut down on the number of motorcycle journeys we take each week, to reduce the risk?
We do not, of course, because it would be preposterous. Risk is part of motorcycle riding, as it is of many activities, from mountaineering to hang-gliding. As it happens I had a friend who died in a hang-gliding accident in his early 50s. The risk of dying in a hang-gliding accident is one in every 116,000 flights, apparently. Let’s make the mathematics easier and say you go hang-gliding every weekend, and get in two flights each time for 100 flights a year. In a lifetime’s hang-gliding that gives you just over a three per cent chance of dying in a crash. Set the undoubted joy of soaring silently over fields and woods, one with the winds and sky, against a risk of death if you did it every weekend for 40 years of 33 to one against, and I’m sure most of us would vote with my friend Bryan.
And now we know, because Dame Sally won’t let us forget, that risk is a part of even moderate drinking, too. But as another friend of mine says, stay in bed to avoid all risk, the ceiling will probably fall on your head. Indeed, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, declared that the risk level Dame Sally wants us to lower ourselves to while drinking alcohol is lower than the risk from eating a bacon sandwich, or spending an hour watching a film.
The lifetime chances of a woman who doesn’t drink getting breast cancer, like my mother, are 11 in a hundred. If a woman drinks, that risk goes up to 13 in a hundred. It’s an entirely valid decision to weigh decades of the pleasures that drinking wine and beer bring against a one-in-50 greater chance of breast cancer, and say: “I believe the risk is worth it,” just the way a hang-glider or a motorcyclist weighs up similar risks.
The big problem in the health-and-drink debate is that the pleasures of drinking are seldom discussed, and never calculated. Winston Churchill, speaking around 1953, after 60 years of regular solid drinking, including pints of champagne, and having Carlsberg invent Special Brew for him, declared: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” I have had huge enjoyment from drinking beer since that first pint of Fremlin’s bitter in the garden of the Rose in Bloom – in a coincidence Carl Jung would have appreciated, the pub’s address is Joy Lane – and if Dame Sally popped up at the end of my bed tomorrow with a scythe and hourglass to declare my time was over, adding that if only I had been a teetotaller I could have had an extra ten years, I’d spit in her eye and say it was more than worth it.