So it is welcome news that the government is pressing for the official guidelines to return in September (see video), albeit two years after they were quietly dropped.
I have joined calls for official health guidelines to appear on all alcoholic drinks labels since revealing that they had been dropped from the UK’s voluntary code in my reporting in late 2017.
It seems extraordinary that robust, scientific information about the safe consumption of a product could ever omitted from packaging, so undermining our right to make informed choices as consumers.
If official health guidelines do reappear on labels in September, as the government hopes, some can be forgiven for looking back and wondering whether self-regulation is an effective way to safeguard consumers?
The responsibility for such concerns about the current system of regulation lies with the alcohol industry. ■
As many as 4.2m people are planning to go alcohol-free in January 2019, according to a YouGov poll, being on course to enhance their drinking choices all year round by doing so.
“Dry January can change lives. We hear every day from people who took charge of their drinking using Dry January, and who feel healthier and happier as a result,” said Richard Piper, head of Alcohol Change, the charity behind the initiative.
A survey of 2018’s participants, reckoned to number over 3m, found: drinking fell from an average of four days a week to three; drunkenness fell to twice a month from three times; eight out of ten felt more in control of their drinking; nine-in-ten saying they saved money.
People can sign up for Dry January online, receiving support from a website, app and a new book on taking a month-long alcohol break, calledTry Dry. ■
Feeling crummy more than a day after an alcohol session this Christmas should give us pause for thought.
The alcohol response of our brains changes depending on our alcohol exposure over the past few hours and days and, less obviously, that over the last few months and years.
In our student days and early twenties, for instance, many of us might drink enough to move our brains into the outer regions of dependency, where our neurons misbehave.
No klaxon accompanies this shift so we may never know it happened. And our recovery from it can happen without us knowing too, with our drinking levels falling as our circumstances change.
But we can also inch into dependency at any time if we drink heavily for long enough, perhaps triggered by friends, a trauma or Christmas. We can unwittingly inch out of dependence again too. But we can’t rely on it.
So how do we know where we stand? It is not easy. If we drink less than the UK guidelines of 14 units (140ml) of alcohol a week for months, there is little chance of a problem. If not, we can’t be so sure.
We can look for clues, however: If we binge-drink, the classic pattern of the enthusiastic “social drinker” in northern Europe and North America, then our recovery after a heavy one is a good place to look.
Overlong aftermath Having routine hangovers means we are not looking after our brains very well and could eventually face difficulties. But discomfort within the first 24 hours is a normal reaction to an alcohol overdose.
But feeling meh more than 24 hours after an alcohol session is something else. We might think it is a “prolonged [or delayed] hangover”, but it is not an overdose rebound, but a reaction to absence.
We have, in other words, some degree of withdrawal. We might sweat, have headaches, feel grumpy, tense, forgetful or nauseous. If we have anything more than the mildest discomfort we should go and see our doctor.
“Two-dayers”, as this phenomenon is sometimes dismissed, are potentially a sign we are flirting with alcohol dependency. Nobody wants to find this out, but the sooner we do, the easier it will be to reverse.
Avoiding heavy alcohol use for three months to a year is typically enough to be rid of it. Making this change on purpose is not always easy, but we can get help from our doctors and online and offline support.
If we stick to it we can reasonably expect clearer thinking, better memory, improved and more stable mood and better sleep. And, on a more practical level, we can substantially cut costs and so improve our finances.
Looking out for “persistent hangovers” or “two-dayers” can enable to look past unhelpful folk wisdom and misinformation to identify a potential problem, a crucial step in improving our long-term wellbeing. ■
“Sober sprints” like Dry January are a chance to experience the many payoffs of low-level drinking to ourselves and others, transforming them from abstract knowledge into a practical method for improving our mental, physical and financial well-being.
A scientific outlook, and the healthy scepticism that goes with it, are no reason to ignore the need to form beliefs we can apply. Such beliefs provide us with a rugged, reliable and reassuring guide, like a pocket compass.
Some important science does not need to be kept so close at hand. This has little to do with its scope or even its complexity. It has more to do with the demands our belief in it places on us.
Accepting the sun-centred view of our galactic neighbourhood or the mind-boggling basics of quantum theory require an enormous leap of the imagination, but our belief they are true is rarely tested.
Few doubt the sun will rise tomorrow, because this scientific likelihood simply reinforces our experience. And we are unlikely to come to much grief if we occasionally imagine the sun going round the earth or that photons are particles and not waves.
Small wonders Keeping a firm grip on earthbound, everyday findings is a far bigger challenge for us. The more humdrum the topic, the more difficult it can be, and no more so than when the subject is what we choose to eat, drink or smoke.
We connect with these subjects physically, emotionally and socially, forming an intimate relationship managed by our astronomically complex brains. The statistical results of understanding this relationship often confound our intuition.
As self-centred animals we are fairly hopeless at connecting with statistics, a type of scientific result especially open to manipulation. And, given a choice, we will tend to believe our senses over numbers on a chart.
But the solid statistical evidence of the long-term harm of, say, trans-fats, alcohol or tobacco smoke require us to alter our behaviour or they are are no use at all. We need to embrace beliefs that allow us to benefit.
Beliefs provide the motivation to be wary of tempting forbidden fruit and are even more helpful because we may initially suffer for heeding scientific advice, as we do with nicotine or alcohol dependency.
Truth endures It may seem to be an impossible to establish facts in our argumentative “post-truth” world. But in the case of alcohol, about which I write, appearances belie broad agreement.
It is hard to maintain a low alcohol intake. Beyond this it fuels anxiety and depression, interferes with sleep and memory, increases the risk of heart and liver disease, cancer and contributes to all manner of accidents and blunders.
Science also indisputably shows there is an effective remedy to minimise alcohol-related problems, one offering large financial, emotional and health returns: to moderate or, more simply, to stop drinking alcohol.
Believing any initial suffering is common, will disappear, and be rewarded makes any hardship far easier to endure. So the dramatic, scientifically-recorded improvement of tens of thousands of people who have done it already is immensely reassuring.
More broadly we might look to evidence that sacrificing the euphoria-on-tap we can get from alcohol tends to help us achieve robust, long-term happiness. Happiness, as people experience it, has been found to be distinct from euphoria.
It is not always easy to do what science says is best for us, especially when people try to deter us. Having scientific beliefs at hand, like a pocket compass, makes it far easier to stay on course. Sober October offers a chance to develop them. ■
UK health minister Matt Hancock said in parliament this week that we ought to follow his example and “drink responsibly”, as part of a contentious wider plan to use the idea of personal responsibility to ward off health problems.
Responsible drinking is the long-time boilerplate of alcohol producers used to deflect responsibility for harm that befalls their customers. But, like it or not, and many health professionals do not, the idea is prevalent and many people will instinctively connect with it.
After all, being responsible for things helps us live together peaceably for longer, deterring us from causing others needless harm and fostering mutual trust. The advantages of “being responsible” are something we learn throughout our lives, the rudiments coming to us in childhood.
We learn that being “held responsible” through customs, rules, laws and understandings allows those around us to penalise us for doing things which harm them, as we can in return. And we learn that to “feel responsible” means accepting and welcoming this kind of deal.
We also realise we often have no choice about the kind of rules we have to follow. Most of society’s rules and laws apply to us without our consent, like physics and biology. So being told to “be responsible” is largely reminder of an unavoidable fact of life.
In the context of alcohol drinking “being responsible” then means we should carry on conforming even if we are inebriated, despite the disabling psychological effects which can make it difficult if not impossible.
Taken to its limit this paradoxical injunction would mean not drinking any alcohol at all. But, if can allow ourselves a small risk of irresponsibility, we can stick to the UK guidelines of 14 UK units (140ml) a week. This keeps the chances of mishap low.
Alcohol producers and health ministers should recommend consumers stick to these guidelines directly, rather than appeal to our sense of responsibility, an emotionally-stirring reminder of our bonds with society which offers little practical help.
An unfathomable target Responsibility is a shifting target. Even when drinking well within the low-risk guidelines it is tricky to know where our responsibilities lie. We are all held responsible and feel responsible for things in many ways which often overlap and conflict.
We might rush to the supermarket and reach for a bag of coffee on the top shelf so impeding an elderly shopper, an oversight for which we might feel responsible and offer sincere apologies. We might then resolve to be more careful before attempting such manoeuvres in future.
Learning opportunity taken, we might then walk from the shop with the bag of coffee hidden under our coat, fully aware of it being petty theft. But we might argue we were charged for two bags rather than one the last time we and prioritise our need to leave to conduct a life-saving operation.
Then, driving to work, we might swerve to avoid an oncoming vehicle, hitting the wing mirror of a parked car. We feel we were not responsible for the damage, but still leave our details for the owner of the parked car to make an insurance claim, knowing we are legally responsible.
Responsibilities are, then, attached to actions and events in different ways with different weights by different people and institutions, through different, rules, laws and customs, depending on circumstances and our own mental and physical limitations. Clear-cut cases are an exception.
This makes attaching responsibility a fascinating topic consuming large amounts of human effort. Armies of sociologists, lawyers, psychologists, philosophers, journalists, commentators and historians try to do it. We should doubt our chances of drawing definitive conclusions alone.
A sense of responsibility does and should help guide our behaviour, along with our self-interest and ideals. But it is there to regulate our relationships not our consumption of things. And it is particularly unsuited to be a yardstick for our consumption of a social, psychoactive drug.
Aim for environment No amount of repetition can change the inadequacy of our sense of responsibility as a mechanism for protecting our health. An enhanced capacity for responsibility is more likely to be a welcome result of low-risk drinking than the other way round.
We can help ourselves and others by fostering our own micro-environments around alcohol drinking: We can limit to a low risk level; We can avoid difficult and risky things if ever inebriated; And we can learn techniques to feel carefree without drinking alcohol.
We could replace “drink responsibly” with new two word mantras, like “drink carefully”, “drink mindfully” or “find alternatives”, more likely to encourage healthier decisions around alcohol. Joining online clubs and finding support groups can help refocus on priorities.
Responsibility is not an effective way to reach alcohol goals, but fulfilling our responsibilities is among the likely rewards of low-risk drinking. We can adopt clear, effective strategies to improve our mental and physical health, even if health ministers do not. ■