Each glass shortens lifespan as much as a cigarette

Nick Cohen, over in the Guardian, is busy telling us all that we must drink less and that Scotland raising the minimum price of alcohol (hitting poor people’s cheap cider and bargain booze, but not directly affecting craft lagers, appellation d’origine contrôlée wines and artisan gin) is a Good Thing because the industry makes its profits by exploiting addicts who are drinking themselves to death en masse.

It is a truth universally unacknowledged that, like drugs cartels, the drink industry makes most of its money from addicts. It thrives on hooked customers, who put boosting the brewers’ profits before their and their families’ health and happiness. Sixty per cent of alcohol sales – worth £27bn a year in England – are to “increasing risk” drinkers taking more than 21 units of alcohol a week, in the case of men (about 10 pints or two bottles of wine), and “harmful” drinkers taking more than 50… Twenty one units (14 for women) does not sound much in my world of journalism, but it is a sign of people who cannot go a day without a shot of their drug, which is as good a definition of an addiction as any.

Now, there’s a question there about who decided what that “risk” was and how large it was. Cohen gets into the Salvation Army-style temperance-league apocalyptic warnings about the horrors of heavy drinking and warns that by the time you’re knocking back fifty units a week (for men, thirty-five for women) you’re undergoing “full degeneration”.

But is that based on any firm evidence? One interesting study, reassuring to the toper, can be found here, which among other things makes the gentle point that since we either under-report what we consume, or we pour away half of the booze we buy undrunk, planning policy on what we admit to consuming may not be accurate. More generally, though, do we have any historical evidence of groups whose alcohol consumption was documented with any confidence, to see how they fared?

Actually, we do, at least as a floor: we know the quantity of the Royal Navy’s spirit ration, which until 1823 was based on half a pint of rum (284 millilitres in foreign) per man per day. We also know its minimum strength, since it was tested by trying to ignite gunpowder soaked in it: it had to be over 57% alcohol by volume (“proof strength”) to pass. That’s sixteen units of alcohol – not per week, but per day – or north of a hundred units a week, just for the issued ration before sailors bought any extra from the purser. (No wonder Jack Tar was jolly back in those days!)

Drunken Sailors
We don’t do this any more. Well, not very often.

But clearly, we would expect a body of men consuming such suicidally destructive quantities of booze to be physical wrecks, raddled by cirrhosis and disease? As Dr James Lind (he of the discovery that citrus fruits were a sovereign remedy for scurvy) put it,

It is an observation, I think, worthy of record that fourteen thousand persons, pent up in ships, should continue, for six or seven months, to enjoy a better state of health upon the watery element, than it can well be imagined so great a number of people would enjoy, on the most healthful spot of ground in the world.

(For context, around this point the Navy won the battle of Quiberon Bay, with twenty ships – who had less than one man sick per ship).

The ration was halved in 1823, and again in 1850, but for a hundred and twenty years until Black Tot Day in 1970, the Navy still issued nearly thirty units of alcohol a week to everyone on the lower deck (junior rates got theirs diluted, seniors got neat rum). Either folk were hardier back then, or Britannia managed to rule the waves and keep her sailors reasonably healthy despite being a pack of hopelessly addicted alcoholics.

Now, there’s no doubt that – leaving health issues aside – being drunk isn’t a positive in many situations, and that while “some booze” might not be bad, indeed might even be good, for you, there really is a point where “too much” is bad for your lifestyle and your health. But can we really, confidently, say that someone consuming 22 units of alcohol a week is a hopeless boozehound helplessly in thrall to the Demon Drink and measures must be taken to address this?

Because if not, are we making policy based on evidence, or on Puritanism?