I Told You Those Lying Bastards Were Making It Up

It was fantastically satisfying to see the front page splash in The Times declare what I’ve been saying for years – that the government’s “safe drinking guidelines” of 21 units of alcohol for men and 14 for women a week have no basis in fact, and were literally made up on the spot with no evidence to support them 20 years ago, solely because the “experts” thought they ought to be saying something rather than nothing.

To quote The Times:

Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal and a member of the college’s working party on alcohol, told The Times yesterday that the figures were not based on any clear evidence … “David Barker was the epidemiologist on the committee and his line was that ‘We don’t really have any decent data whatsoever. It’s impossible to say what’s safe and what isn’t’. And other people said, ‘Well, that’s not much use.’ … So the feeling was that we ought to come up with something. So those limits were really plucked out of the air. They weren’t really based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee.”

On that basis, as The Times says, public health care policy, and private advice by doctors to individuals, has been conducted ever since, with the figures treated as if they were stone-hard, incontrovertible fact, wheeled out again for the latest report that claimed the middle classes are the new danger drinkers. To quote The Times again:

Professor Mark Bellis, director of the North West Public Health Observatory, which produced this week’s study, felt able to say that anyone exceeding the limits was “drinking enough to put their health at significant risk”. That a host of epidemiological studies had filled the intervening years with evidence to the contrary seemed not to matter one jot.”

The World Health Organisation’s limits are considerably more liberal than those the British government seeks to impose on its people. The Times again:

The WHO’s International Guide for Monitoring Alcohol Consumption and Related Harm set out drinking ranges that qualified people as being at low, medium or high-risk of chronic alcohol-related harm. For men, less than 35 weekly units was low-risk, 36 to 52.5 was medium-risk and above 53 was high-risk. Women were low-risk below 17.5 units, medium between 18 and 35 and high above 36.

Indeed, the evidence is strong that alcohol consumption keeps you alive:

in 1993, a study of 12,000 middle-aged, male doctors led by Sir Richard Doll and a team at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, found that the lowest mortality rates – lower even than teetotallers – were among those drinking between 20 and 30 units of alcohol each week. The level of drinking that produced the same risk of death as that faced by a teetotaller was 63 units a week, or roughly a bottle of wine a day.

By 1994, five studies had been published which showed that moderate amounts of alcohol gave some degree of protection against heart disease. A year later, scientists at the Institute for Preventive Medicine in Copenhagen, who studied 13,000 men and women over 12 years, found that drinking more than half a bottle of wine a day – 50 units a week – cut the risk of premature death by half.

The fact that the current “safe” drinking guidelines were invented in 1987 with no medical evidence to justify them is, obviously, a 20-year-old story, and has been in the public domain for at least a dozen years: Andrew Barr, in Drink: An Informal Social History. published back in 1995, quoted Richard Smith saying (p321) exactly the same as he told The Times for yesterday’s front page: when it came to setting the “safe” drinking limits, “we just pulled them out of the air.” But because the Department of Health continued shouting about how everybody had to keep to the “safe” limits, newspapers accepted unquestioningly that these “safe” limits were real.

So why do those bastards keep lying to us about what “safe” levels of alcohol are? My personal guess is that too many politicians – and members of public health committees – are in the game because they want to control others, and they associate drinking with loss of control, and therefore want to stop it: except they know, after the failure of prohibition in the United States, that stopping people drinking is impossible, and so they try to make us feel as guilty as possible about one of life’s best pleasures.

30 thoughts on “I Told You Those Lying Bastards Were Making It Up

  1. […] I Told You Those Lying Bastards Were Making It Up From Martyn Cornell: “It was fantastically satisfying to see the front page splash in The Times declare what I’ve been saying for years – that the government’s ’safe drinking guidelines’ of 21 units of alcohol for men and 14 for women a week have no basis in fact, and were literally made up on the spot with no evidence to support them 20 years ago, solely because the ‘experts’ thought they ought to be saying some rather than nothing.” […]

  2. Has anyone ever really doubted the 21 units was arbitary, though? There’s no doubt that drinking substantially more than that isn’t going to do you any real favours.

    I’t not sure I’d characterise this as government lies and I find it difficult to get worked up about. Those that govern look at the strain put on public resources by alchohol related illnesses and, being a government, they seek to act. Giving advice that effectively says “don’t go on the lash too often” isn’t something I’d condemn them for doing. Making it easy to understand by choosing an arbitrary amount for men and women is simplistic but in some cases may be helpful. Again, not something to get worked up about.

    Arguments that one thing represents “the thin end of the wedge” for another thing (in this case some sort of prohibition) very rarely convince me, and tend to be the preserve of the paranoid.

  3. Sorry, Stonch, I couldn’t disagree more – really, utterly think you’re staggeringly wrong on this. There was no evidence, it wasn’t true, and the government, civil servants, politicians and health professionals claimed it was: they lied, and trying to frighten mei nto reforming my behaviour by telling me lies is not what I want from my rulers.

    The “21 units” limit has been presented as cold steel scientific fact, and those in authority knew it was a guess but thought we’d just accept their word for it. In any other arena, presenting guesses as fact would get you into huge trouble. Do you do that in your job? I don’t think so …

    I don’t accept the argument that we should all be made to drink less because of “the strain put on public resources by alcohol related illnesses” – for a start, most of the figures on the alleged amount alcohol costs the NHS are made up, too, as they attempt to quantify the unquantifiable: cost-benefit analysis in the public sector is more prone to “garbage in, garbage out” than in any other sector, and massively depends on assumptions which can be twisted to give any result you like.

    The 21-unit level is 75 per cent lower than a level broad studies have found to be safe, and lower than the level many social drinkers will consume week by week without harm. Is it helpful to tell people who are drinking between 21 and 35 units a week (two pints of beer a day) that they’re damaging their health when they’re not? No – I’d say it was actually irresponsible to worry them needlessly.

    We’ve forgotten that for a century, from 1840 to around 1940, the anti-drink lobby in this country was hugely influential and politically very powerful. People with just those same prohibitionist views are still around, still trying to impose their puritanical anti-alcohol world view on the rest of us.

    Now they’re trying to bring in a 10 per cent tax rise on drink, still trying to claim we have a big drink problem in this country (we don’t) that can be stopped by putting 17p on the price of a supermarket bottle of beer (it couldn’t). It’s not paranoid to believe their motives are less concerned with our health (which is nobody’s business but our own) and more concerned with promoting an anti-enjoyment agenda.

  4. Hmmmm you do make a lot of good points. I wasn’t aware the weekly units thing was ever presented as a scientific fact, more just a guideline – I’d like to see what you’re basing that assertion on. In the absence of such evidence, I can’t see how anyone has lied about this. I mean, we all know that everyone’s body is different in any case. However, as you say it’s almost certainly on the low side any way you look at it, so isn’t helpful for that reason.

    Can you really couple this with the demand for tax rises on alcohol (which I do oppose), though? Not quite sure either way.

  5. Stonch, the Depatrtment of Health will point you to the DrinkAware website, which claims:

    Consistently drinking four or more units for men, and three or more for women, isn’t advisable because of the progressive health risks it carries.

    That simply isn’t true, and yet it’s presented as fact. The plusses don’t properly start outweighing the minuses until you’re drinking twice as much as the DoH “advises” – four pints a day, regularly, or more.

    Trying to get drink taxes raised is just another weapon in the anti-alcohol brigade’s assault on people’s pleasure, alongside restricting sales/opening hours, and overstating the harm alcohol does, and that’s why I link them. Like all the other claims of the new teetotal campaigners (and indeed the old teetotal campaigners) the tax argument is based on false logic and misguided premises – there’s no room here to detail the entire case, but I can highly recommend Drinking to your health: The allegations and the evidence,
    edited by Digby Anderson and published by the Social Affairs Unit, a little out of date now, but still a powerful argument against the claims of those attempting social control of our pleasures.

  6. Wait a moment – are you saying that drinking four pints of beer a day is fine? I’d have to disagree, Martyn.

    Quite aside from the effects of the alcohol on your body, all those extra calories will lead to obesity in most people (i.e. those on an average diet who aren’t regularly exercising a lot). I speak from experience!

  7. What can I say:

    The level of drinking that produced the same risk of death as that faced by a teetotaller was 63 units a week, or roughly a bottle of wine a day.”

    Now, calorie consumption is another matter entirely – (1) in our centrally heated, exercise-free lives, yes, we consume too many calories. But (2) the calorie danger with alcohol is not so much from the drink itself, it’s the “munchies” that accompany drinking – why are kebab shops open after the pubs shut? (And has anyone ever eaten a kebab from one of those places without having consumed several pints beforehand? Mind you, the crack in Abrakebabra near St Stephen’s Green in Dublin around 11.30 on a Friday night is gerat …)

  8. I think you’re barking up the wrong tree with this comparison to tee-totallers. Are you seriously suggesting that drinking a bottle of wine a day makes you healthier than drinking nothing? I’d wager there are other reasons why the stats work out this way – other habits and attributes tee-totallers tend to have which make them more prone to copping it.

    For example, many people who are tee-totallers are people with serious illnesses that prevent them from drinking. Others are recovered alcoholics. Such people would obviously have a higher mortality rate, and that would skew the figures dramatically.

    On the other point, having a session on the beers every night is like consuming another meal, in terms of calories. That’s obviously going to make one lardy.

    I still don’t feel lied to.

  9. Are you seriously suggesting that drinking a bottle of wine a day makes you healthier than drinking nothing?

    I’m pointing out that a study of 12,000 male doctors, conducted by Sir Richard Doll, probably the most respected epidemiologist in the world (and the man who discovered the link between smoking and cancer) had that as one of its findings. If there had been other influences on the result, such as some of the teetotal doctors being non-drinkers because of illness, or being recovering alcoholics, I am certain Doll would have pointed that out, and taken it into account. Argue with him – I’m merely repeating his findings.

  10. Martyn, have you read the whole report? If so, fair enough. I still find it difficult to believe that a bottle of wine a day makes one healthier, but we all have to make our own choices in life.

  11. It´s interesting that our instinctive reaction to being given these limits is “well, I drink more that that, so the limits must be wrong”.

    I think we Brits have a bit of a blind spot about the amount we drink. Because of this, I don´t have a problem with “official guidance” being lower than what the scientists say or indeed the WHO. Given the large portion sizes and the increasing strength of most of our booze in the UK, even the people who try to count their units are systematically undercounting.

    I´ve heard for example (and do feel free to debunk this myth too!) that the advice for pregnant women to avoid alcohol completely does not come from new research, but rather from the difficulties in sticking to a “safe” limit. In this case, it is better to advise complete abstinence than a limit that can be easily broken.


  12. I don´t have a problem with “official guidance” being lower than what the scientists say or indeed the WHO.

    What is the point of “guidance” that’s not based on the facts? Is a lie OK because it’s “in your own interests”?

  13. This irrational guideline thing is not unique to the UK.

    Britain’s supposed safe weekly limit of 21 is more than Poland (12.5), but less than Canada (23.75), America (24.5), South Africa and Denmark (31.5) and Australia (35).

    Some countries say that women should drink less than men, but others, including Canada, the Netherlands and Spain, make no distinction.

  14. […] reaction to being told what their limits are is to question the science. Perhaps correctly, because as Zythophile pointed out a while ago, the evidence supporting the current limits (2-3 per day for women, 3-4 per day for men) is not […]

  15. It would be nice, that when you have a platform like this, you would check the facts.
    It’s long proven that you get the benificial effects of the alcohol when you consume moderatly (<21 AU for men, 14 for women) and that alcohol is bad for your health when you drink more.

    A 2-minute search on Pubmed or Uptodate could have showed you that info, instead of throwing around data from the nineties.

      1. StuartCarter said: ↑
        so you’re saying Martyn Cornell is an unreliable source?

        It seems like it, yes.

        “Excessive alcohol consumption causes numerous complications. However, alcohol does not only show adverse side effects: Moderate alcohol consumption improves the lipid profile as well as the insulin sensitivity and reduces the risk of cardiovascular events, diabetes mellitus type 2 and gall stones. Further, total mortality is decreased. Weighing benefits and risks women should limit alcohol consumption to 10-12 g alcohol/day and men to 20-24 g alcohol/day. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not drink alcohol at all.”
        You can find it on: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23050348

        “Since ancient times, people have attributed a variety of health benefits to moderate consumption of fermented beverages such as wine and beer, often without any scientific basis. There is evidence that excessive or binge alcohol consumption is associated with increased morbidity and mortality, as well as with work related and traffic accidents. On the contrary, at the moment, several epidemiological studies have suggested that moderate consumption of alcohol reduces overall mortality, mainly from coronary diseases. However, there are discrepancies regarding the specific effects of different types of beverages (wine, beer and spirits) on the cardiovascular system and cancer, and also whether the possible protective effects of alcoholic beverages are due to their alcoholic content (ethanol) or to their non-alcoholic components (mainly polyphenols). Epidemiological and clinical studies have pointed out that regular and moderate wine consumption (one to two glasses a day) is associated with decreased incidence of cardiovascular disease (CVD), hypertension, diabetes, and certain types of cancer, including colon, basal cell, ovarian, and prostate carcinoma. Moderate beer consumption has also been associated with these effects, but to a lesser degree, probably because of beer’s lower phenolic content. These health benefits have mainly been attributed to an increase in antioxidant capacity, changes in lipid profiles, and the anti-inflammatory effects produced by these alcoholic beverages. This review summarizes the main protective effects on the cardiovascular system and cancer resulting from moderate wine and beer intake due mainly to their common components, alcohol and polyphenols.”

        I don’t know, that took me a 2 minute search.

        1. No, that doesn’t prove anything at all. “Weighing benefits and risks” means “having a stab at a figure we don’t think will get us laughed at”. It is certainly NOT a “fact” that the best balance is one unit for women and two units for men a day. That’s just a guess. It is a nannying government’s attempt to impose on people’s freedom to do what they like to their own bodies by frightening them.

          The benefits from alcohol are not just physical: alcohol brings tremendous benefits as a relaxant, and as a stimulant to social intercourse. It also brings great enjoyment in its own right: the pleasures of a really good beer, a particularly fine wine or whisky are, for many, among the joys of life. But you never see THAT thrown into the balance when anti-alcohol physicians talk about the pros and cons of alcohol.

          1. Hahaha, so all the recent Pubmed publication about alcoholism stating that severe alcohol consumption is bad for your health, they are just bullshitting around? Right. Ah well, I shouldn’t be surprised, you probably think the credibility of your site is the standard.

            If you can’t see the dangers of alcohol, the 2,5 milion deaths it causes every year, you do have a serious problem.
            It’s pretty disgusting to see how someone can promote heavy drinking in 2013.

            People like you shouldn’t get a platform like this. Especially because you don’t have any medicial knowledge, or knowledge on this matter.

            It’s cool to write about beer, but stick to the stuff you know, not some populistic bullshit as the “article” above.

          2. Mathieu, you are a liar. You are making up untrue claims about my position and attacking me for things I never said. I certainly never said overconsumption of alcohol is not a problem. It is – for a very small minority of people. Nowhere am I promoting ‘heavy drinking’. Don’t claim I said things that I did not. It makes you look stupid.

            I don’t know what your “2.5 million deaths [alcohol] causes every year” is meant to refer to – certainly not the UK, where alcohol is reckoned to be responsible for fewer than 9,000 deaths a year – less than 1.5 per cent of all deaths in England and Wales in 2010.

          3. No sir, the only liar is you! You’re making statements that are not true.

            You’re trowing data at your readers from over 20 years ago, of which one is stating 62 alcohol units a week is a dangerous as no alcohol. I call that saying overconsumption of alcohol is a good thing, and therefore you are a danger to public health and you should be ashamed of writing this kind of fiction story.

            Stick with your history and leave the important part to people with actual medicial knowledge.

          4. Mathieu, you’re distorting and misquoting. Nowhere am I promoting overconsumption of alcohol. You seem to be contributing nothing but unfounded accusations and claims that only Mathieu knows what he is talking about. And you’ve failed to answer the question about what that 2.5 million deaths is supposed to relate to. .

  16. I have only just stumbled across this. I have always thought that these invented limits were made up by the same religiously inspired medical advice that claims bacon and pork sausages are carcinogenic.

  17. The problem here is the use of Epidemiology to determine proper consumption limits.

    We now know from nutrition science that epidemiology can lead us down many wrong paths, some of them substantially wrong like the USDA’s food pyramid.

    The problem being that epidemiological studies canonly tell us things about correlation not causation.

    It used to be believed that the consumption of red wine helped heart health.
    Again this came from an epidemiological study involving the rates of cardiovascular issues correlated with the rates of red wine consumption… ie, France.

    As further studies have been done, it is now believed that it is actually the higher consumption of cream and cheeses in the French diet that is leading to improved cardiovascular health, and not the higher consumption of red wine.

    So what do we know? Not a lot, but we can say some things for certain:

    1. Alcoholic drinks contain no vital nutrition.
    2. Your body will consume alcohol for energy before it will consume any other form (carbs, fats, proteins). Accordingly, alcohol consumption can directly lead to obesity and is the very definition of “empty calories”.
    3. Consumption of any substance that alters brain chemistry prior to the brain’s full development at age 25 is a really bad idea. Thus alcohol consumption can directly lead to addiction, and other degenerative issues.
    4. Alcohol affects memory, cognition, mood, decision-making, sleep patterns etc. None of this influence is net positive.
    5. Divesting the body of alcohol requires an enormous amount of water for processing. Dehydration comes with its own attendant issues.
    6. Insulin sensitivity is a thornier problem… the most recent comprehensive study has shown that up to 2 drinks per day for women led to a decrease risk of developing type II, but for men all/any alcohol consumption led to an increased risk. Source:
    7. Both heavy and binge drinking (which can work out to moderate consumption over the course of a week) are strongly correlated with Type II diabetes and other chronic issues.

    So what does that mean?

    Well, for one Martyn is right and governments should never be telling their subjects, I mean citizens, what to do, because what’s right for the specific individual is indeterminable till it is too late.

    2-3 drinks daily might be okay for Joe Sixpack, but for Johnny Sixpack, even one a day might be a killer.

    What should the government have said? “We don’t know for any given individual. We’re guessing but we feel for most people, 2-3 drinks daily shouldn’t lead to acute health issues. For some this number might be too low, for others too high. But there are ongoing studies… citizens should use them to educate themselves and make their own decisions.”

    That level of transparency and honesty and willingness to not interfere, however, will never be forthcoming from the people we employ to run our nations.

    Don’t like the government being involved in your lifestyle? Stop voting for political parties that support government medicine and health services. Stop voting for political parties that support more “governmenting” in general, or even ones that think the amount of governmenting right now is just fine. You can’t have it both ways.

    1. I have no problem at all with government medicine and health services – the example to the south of you shows exactly what happens with privatised medicine. Free medicine should be a right in any civilised society. That does not, of course, mean that government interference in my right to put what I like insiode my body should therefore be allowed.

      “Alcohol affects memory, cognition, mood, decision-making, sleep patterns etc. None of this influence is net positive.” Nonsense. Alcohol’s effect on mood is exactly why people drink it, and is undoubtedly a net benefit to humanity, or we wouldn’t have been drinking it for the past 13,000+ years.

      Motorbike riding is strongly correlated with crashing and killing yourself. However, nobody sees motorbike riding as a moral issue, or motorbike riding as something that should be banned.

  18. I should say in the above comment that “alcohol contains no vital nutrition”. Alcoholic drinks on the other hand may well do so, but the nutrition is not derived from the alcohol. You don’t need to consume beer to get the nutrition offered by brewer’s yeast, or vodka paralyzers to get your dairy quota.

  19. I wonder if todays alcohol limits in Scotland are based on figures gathered by GPs, nurses ,health workers etc.
    They all ask how much we consume as a routine these days.
    If this is the case then its all based on lies.
    Who tells the doctor the real quantity .
    C’mon lets get real.
    Are these stats analysed ?
    Not much point in asking patients if figures are not used as a benchmark.
    Im interested in what others opinions are ???
    Robert Cochrane 26/8/

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