What is the goal of your work on alcohol?
To make life better by offering a reliable understanding of alcohol and the discussion around it. This can enrich lives by improving decisions in an area where decisions are often questionable. Oh, yes, and to make it a positive, civilised and enjoyable process too. It is, after all, about making life better.
What form does it take?
The centre is the book Alcohol Companion, a light overview of scientific research, identifying and resolving many common confusions. This spawned Alcohol for Nerds, a collection of short pieces exploring the complexities individually to maximise the benefit of scientific understanding. Alongside this I track news and comment, providing context and investigating stories of interest, organising events to provide timely and informed discussion.
Does your view not constantly go out of date?
No. Useful and interesting new scientific studies appear regularly, but they do not fundamentally change the structure of scientific picture built over decades. The most active area of news is in attempts to square these facts with commercial and political goals, as well as the discussion around emerging lifestyles around alcohol. As reality slowly sinks in and attractive alternatives emerge, like networking online rather than over drinks, people are generally drinking less, led by younger people. We are in a great position to get ahead of the game and harness the positive developments, regardless of our age.
Can’t we just rely on personal experiences?
Our experience is very important, of course. It helps tell us who we are. And we can learn a lot from it. We benefit by gaining experience through things like Dry January, for instance. And we can learn from hearing the experiences of other people too. We respond well to role models and cautionary tales. But direct experience has limitations too. It can be misleading. Alcohol affects us all differently, depending on our genetics and our environment. Social pressure, marketing and alcohol’s psychoactive effects are also misleading. So relying too heavily on word-of-mouth and rules-of-thumb is prone to error.
What is the alternative?
It is better, instead, to found our fundamental views about alcohol on scientific studies. They draw insights from far larger numbers of people than we can ever meet and in far more systematic ways. We can then go back and see how our individual experiences fit into this broad, general picture. This gives us a range of perspectives to get a deeper understanding and to underpin our decisions.
What is the overall picture?
It is that alcohol is enjoyable—producing temporary euphoria, a pleasant feeling of sedation and often carrying a pleasant aroma and taste—but also that it is useless and risky. It also shows that our relationship with alcohol is not fixed, but dynamic. This means we can change it.
“Useless”? That’s a bit harsh.
Saying something is “useless”, in the sense I use it, does not denigrate it. Art and music are useless, in the practical sense I am using it. They do things but they are not tools to achieve practical ends. Similarly we should not think of alcohol as a tool we should use to improve our physical or mental health.
Is there an alternative?
Yes. Countless. There are reliable ways to achieve better physical and mental health without alcohol’s known risks and downsides. Physical exercise, learning to relax, finding work-life balance and pro-social behaviour, for instance. These are all more likely to help maintain or improve our mental and physical health without backfiring.
So are you “anti-alcohol”, then?
No. It’s not even clear what this phrase actually means. It is generally used as cliched invective when someone wants to avoid rational discussion. I generally drink under 14 UK units (140ml) a week without bingeing. As I said before role models can be useful, but they also have their limitations. I do not set myself up as one, having enough to do sifting, interrogating and interpreting information.
And what about other people?
People should think about it and do as they like.
And if you were asked to offer some advice?
Drinking alcohol is a decision best taken based on objective science rather than based on hearsay or social pressure. For this reason I think it is unfriendly and illiberal to put pressure on people to drink alcohol, particularly given the fact it reduces our ability to make good choices. It also tends to be the most vulnerable and disadvantaged who suffer most harm. That seems to me to be the most sociable approach. ◼