Acting on this famous injunction worked out pretty well for Alice in that it was her passport to Wonderland – a country not without its hazards, however, as she found when, taking the advice to ‘Eat Me’ with respect to a currant bun, she expanded to the extent that her head hit the ceiling. Hard on the heels of the previous piece, let that be a warning to one and all!
Drinking and eating was something of a dominant theme in Alice’s career but these days, as we’ve noted, about two-thirds of the world’s population is keeping her company. Whilst she was combining the two activities at the Tea Party the Mad Hatter scolded her linguistic laxity by pointing out that ‘I see what I eat’ is not the same as ‘I eat what I see.’ Wise words from one portrayed as a little potty but, if you digest the obesity stats I ran through last time, you might think that for many they are the same.
On the fluid theme, so enthusiastically has the world followed Lewis Carroll’s ‘Drink Me’ instruction that alcohol now causes the death of 2.5 million people a year – that’s about 4% of the total who die. Some of these deaths are caused by cancers and alcohol itself is classed as a carcinogen – i.e. something that can alter DNA to give you cancer.
So says The World Health Organization (WHO) but not everyone agrees. Scarcely a week goes by without some boffin or ‘authority’ pronouncing afresh on the subject in ways that seem to flip between the two extremes of ‘it’s very good for you’ and ‘it’s very bad indeed.’ It really must be enough to drive the ‘man in the street’ to take up residence in the nearest pub.
Confusing? I’ll say
Setting the WHO to one side for a moment, just the other day The Independent headlined an ‘expert’s’ view that drinking more than the recommended daily intake is actually good for you, abstaining is bad and it’s only consuming more than 13 units a day (four to five pints of beer or more than one bottle of wine) – getting ratted as we tend to think of it – that is really harmful.
In the same vein not long ago psychologists at the University of Illinois showed that a couple of pints of beer actually improves mental agility. They came to this seductive conclusion by testing the effects of moderate alcohol intoxication on a common creative problem-solving task, called the Remote Associates Test (RAT). So RATs to the WHO then. But hang on a minute.
What’s the problem with drinking?
Only the other day a bunch of European scientists calling themselves The Alcohol Public Health Research Alliance (or AMPHORA – geddit?), said people were drinking on average 600 times the safe levels for preventing cancers. Meaning? Anything over two drinks a month gives liver cirrhosis a helping hand and – wait for it – more than two pints of beer A YEAR heightens the risk of cancer. As the RAT results say on that ration you’ll never work out the daily deal, let us reveal, that for men, four units doubles the risk of cancers of the mouth and throat and for women just three units a day increases the risk for breast cancer by 25 per cent.
Crumbs! Let’s ask the Germans, serious drinkers to a man – and woman. Helmut Seiz and chums from the University of Heidelberg concluded that even one alcoholic drink a day hikes the breast cancer risk by 4 per cent. Heavy drinking (three or more drinks a day) and it’s up to 40 to 50 per cent. In particular, alcohol consumption before first pregnancy increases breast cancer risk.
Overall, alcohol drinking accounts for one in 20 cases of cancer in northern Europe and one in 10 in countries such as Italy and France, where drinking is more widespread among women. Lots of other studies have come to similar conclusions.
A heartening word
All that’s tricky enough but perhaps the biggest problem is the weighty evidence that says alcohol protects against heart disease and strokes, which together kill 200,000 people a year. One example tells us that for women just one drink just a week cuts the risk of heart attack and stroke by 36%. And heart disease is even more common than cancer.
So that’s nice but, as we’ve noted, alcohol kills an awful lot of folk – which means that the risks increase rapidly with heavier drinking.
So how are we doing at a common creative problem-solving task?
In the UK we now drink three times more alcohol than we did in the 1950s – and it kills between 30,000 and 40,000 of us and causes 20,000 cases of cancer a year. Consumption has actually fallen a bit in six years out of the past eight. At least that trend’s in the right direction but even so it means we average almost exactly EIGHT LITRES PER HEAD PER YEAR OF NEAT, 100% ALCOHOL!! Which might go some way to explaining the latest prediction – that there will be 210,000 avoidable alcohol-related deaths over the next 20 years.
Not great then. Which is why all the sane experts want governments to take draconian steps to minimize this ongoing disaster through taxation and using the shock tactics that eventually made an impact on smoking.
Here, in hot news straight off the press, is another contribution from experts, albeit from a rather unusual angle. The authors went to a supermarket – and guess what they found out?! Displaying alcohol at the end of an aisle significantly increased sales. So seductive is this seemingly simple ploy that it hoists sales by nearly 50% for spirits and by over one third for wine – that is, they sell getting on for half as much again as they would if the stuff was stacked on racks along the aisle. For fizzy drinks it’s an over 50% rise. A rather boring day’s work therefore threw up a result that amazed me – and, as it was carried out by some bods from Cambridge (The Behaviour and Health Research Unit, if you insist), it must be right. How scary is that? When you go to the supermarket you’re trolley-jousting with folk who will buy shedloads of stuff that’s bad for them rather than make a right turn!! Aren’t human beings amazing?
The boffins point out the obvious: any attempt to curb the consumption of alcohol and sugar-sweetened drinks might consider how they’re presented. So the government’s pitch to the supermarket chains should be “How about displaying this stuff in a way that will sell least? We know this makes a big difference, so come on, help the world by behaving responsibly.” Better still, invite them to save the world by leaving it in the warehouse. Good luck with that one, David.
Finally – what you’ve all been waiting for – What do I tell my nearest and dearest to do?
If you don’t drink – don’t start. If you’re a moderate like me – one glass with dinner, sometimes – don’t stop. If you drink more than that you’re likely to have a problem, sooner or later: but it’s your problem numbskull so do something about it – starting today!
Alice wouldn’t have got very far on that advice. But then, she lived in a different world.