How they shrunk the safe drinking limits


Obviously all of us who love wine are right to be concerned about its most stimulating ingredient, alcohol, and its effects on our health.

At the beginning of 2016, those of us living in the UK were surprised to find that the official, safe-drinking guidelines for men had suddenly shrunk, from 21 to 14 'units of alcohol' (a unit being one modest glass of wine, an even smaller glass than the one illustrated here in fact) a week, at a stroke reducing the amount men were 'allowed' to drink to the same level as women. To me this seemed counter-productive. I had taken reasonable notice of the official advice up to that point but this arbitrary shrinkage of one of life's great pleasures has been enough to make me ignore official advice entirely.

Turns out this may have been wise. A shocking account of how those new guidelines were arrived at is written by Martin Green, editor of Drinks Retailing News (the trade publication that used to rejoice in the wonderful title of Off Licence News) for which our Richard writes a regular column incidentally. The article is, tellingly, headlined Trickery revealed...

I was stimulated to suggest Martin republish this worrying article online, after its original publication in print last November, by an encounter last week with Professor Monika Christmann, president of OIV, the Paris-based international organisation in charge of wines and vines. She whizzes around the world meeting other international organisations with connections to the world of wine. As wine consumption slows in many of the world's major markets, including the UK, she reports that there is a massive anti-alcohol sentiment in the World Health Organisation in particular and she is braced for further pressures and expects increasing restrictions to be imposed on the sale and promotion of wine and other alcoholic drinks.

I for one am delighted that in the UK in the last few years there has been a noticeable decline in binge drinking among the young. And I am well aware that we all differ in our ability to process alcohol and our vulnerability to the various dangers associated with excessive alcohol consumption. But for many healthy, well-behaved individuals, drinks such as wine contribute immeasurably and positively to their quality of life – and are even associated with some health benefits (see, for instance, parts of the Oxford Companion entry on health, effects of wine consumption on).

I am reminded of when, a month after the doom-laden report on alcohol consumption from the Chief Medical Officer of the UK that included the dramatic reduction in permitted units, I gave a talk at Jewish Book Week, a popular literary festival in London. The first question from the floor came from celebrated medical man  Sir Robert Winston: 'So, Jancis, when you look at the glass of wine, do you immediately think of cancer?' This, I should add, was meant sarcastically. He is as sceptical of the latest official anti-alcohol pronouncements as the rest of us.

I'd love to see a better sense of proportion – and just more sense in general – imposed where alcohol and official pronouncements meet.