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My first drink in six months was in the cardiac ward.

THE revelation that temperance lobbyists may have been involved in setting the latest alcohol “safe” limits in England will only confirm what many suspect: that there is a move to achieve prohibition by stealth in Britain. The latest guidelines are at the very least an escalation in an arms race of alcohol intolerance.

Men are now supposedly as vulnerable to the destructive effects of the demon drink as women, so the male safe intake has been reduced accordingly. There seems no real scientific basis for this change other than a general feeling that that alcohol advice should be gender-neutral.

The degree of harm is very difficult to quantify at these levels. To suggest that there is a significantly increased risk going from 14 units a week to 21 is questionable because alcohol affects different people in very different ways. A fit 6′ 4” rugby forward is not going to experience the same impact as a 5′ 2” woman who sits in an office all day. It undermines the whole exercise if the safe limits lack credibility. People suspect these are arbitrary limits set by a committee of killjoys.

Readers will be reaching for their keyboards to berate me here for not recognising the obvious harm done by alcohol. What about diabetes? Liver damage? Domestic violence? The cost to the NHS? Alcohol-related mortality is increasing among middle aged Scots, even as alcohol consumption is falling among young people.

But we also know that, for most of us, alcohol is a benign drug that has been part of civilised culture since Biblical times, and generally causes no more harm than coffee or tea. Both coffee and tea contain caffeine, which is a potentially harmful drug. Just about everything we eat or drink is toxic to a degree.

Cooked meat is carcinogenic and there is probably no more a “safe” level of red meat than there is of alcohol. Toast is also cancer-causing, but we’ve been eating burned bread in various forms for thousands of years. And don’t even start looking at the side effects of over-the-counter medicines.

Until recently, eggs were believed to be so injurious to health that we were advised to eat no more than three a week. Misplaced concern over obesity, combined with a simplistic understanding of the causes of heart disease, led to a misguided assault on all dairy products. These foods can of course increase the risk of heart disease. However, it turned out that the non-fat alternatives, like those low cholesterol spreads, are far worse.

The truth is that alcohol can also be good for you even though it is technically toxic. When I learned that I needed a heart bypass – despite being a fit, non-smoker who’d shunned dairy products – I gave up alcohol in preparation. Imagine my surprise, then, on my first night on the cardiac ward when the nurse asked me if I wanted a beer or a whisky. Yes, the first drink I had in six months was in the ERI.
But the dram certainly raised my spirits, and not just mine. The grey-faced, overweight guys in the ward, who’d been lying in stoic silence thinking their lives were over, suddenly cheered up and started joking and exchanging stories. I’m no doctor, but I guarantee the psychological benefit outweighed any theoretical health risk from alcohol.

I’ve never been much in sympathy which people who complain about the “nanny state”. They tend to be anti-social individualists who just want the market to dictate how we live. Who still has nannies anyway? But lately even I’m finding the demonisation of alcohol, and the proscription of foodstuffs, increasingly irksome.You don’t need to be a libertarian gun fanatic to see something unbalanced about officialdom’s obsession with micromanaging our lifestyles.

Prohibition sounded like a great idea until they tried it in America, and we certainly don’t want it introduced here in the guise of health education. Sometimes banning things is the only sensible thing to do, of course, as with smoking in public places. And a sugar levy is probably a good idea, though of course it doesn’t actually involve a ban. But we need a moratorium on health diktats.

I believe they no longer serve alcohol in hospital wards now that the temperance obsessives are in charge. But alcohol has been a part of the daily diet for thousands of years. One of life’s few innocent pleasures, it inspires conviviality and consoles those in despair. Or, as the French gastronome, Jean Brillat-Savarin, put it: “a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine”. Cheers.

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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