Wednesday, March 9, 2011

No safe level

I’ve often seen the argument advanced that there is a fundamental difference between tobacco and alcohol, in that tobacco is harmful to health at all levels of consumption, whereas alcohol in moderation has no adverse effects and indeed for some people may be mildly beneficial. This has led to a different approach to the two in public policy, with governments being much more willing to impose severe restrictions on the advertising and consumption of tobacco products than alcohol.

Of course the official “safe drinking guidelines” have no scientific basis, and don’t reflect real-world consumption patterns, but at least they have given a fig-leaf of respectability to the brewing and distilling industries and the licensed trade. So long as they only appeal to “responsible, moderate drinkers” then they’re OK.

However, Professor David Nutt, the scientist who a couple of years ago masqueraded as someone proposing a more rational approach to illegal drugs while actually advocating draconian anti-drink measures, has now stuck his head above the parapet and claimed that there is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol consumption.

This is very effectively demolished by Chris Snowdon, who points out that many of Nutt’s claims are profoundly unscientific and bear a close resemblance to the shrill rhetoric of 19th century temperance campaigners. This includes statements such as “alcohol is a poison” and that people can become addicted to alcohol from their first drink, together with the description of the alcohol business as a “toxic industry.” I wonder if your typical man-in-a-shed brewer or freehouse operator recognises himself from that description.

Nevertheless, this isn’t going to be the last we will see of this particular line of reasoning. So expect to see the argument advanced more and more in the coming years that, as there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, the alcohol business is not a “legitimate” trade and it is a reasonable objective for government to seek to reduce consumption as near to zero as possible. So any calls for government help for pubs, or small breweries, or distilleries, or wineries, are going to fall on deaf ears.

You can’t really imagine anyone today producing a video saying “I’m proud of British tobacco products.” In twenty years’ time, might it be equally unthinkable that British brewers could do the same about their “toxic industry”?