John Humphrys - Cheers! How much booze is too much?

November 10, 2023, 3:42 PM GMT+0

If you are reading this fairly early in the day I wonder how you’re feeling. Just a little hungover? Maybe regretting that you had that extra glass or two last night? It’s none of my business, I know, and you might say it’s not the sort of question with which I would normally begin this column. We tend to concern ourselves with the great issues troubling the country and indeed the world – especially in such uncertain days as these. True enough, but binge drinking has been in the headlines recently and the issue is: should we be worried about it?

A binge drinker, for those of us who need reminding, is defined as someone who has at least six drinks in a single session at least once a month. More than a quarter of British women admitted to doing just that. Many said they did rather more. That puts this country at the top of the list of women binge drinkers.

The research has been carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Its study compared alcohol consumption across 33 countries and found that we come 17th for total alcohol consumption. British adults drink ten litres of pure alcohol each per year, the equivalent of 100 bottles of wine or 500 pints of beer. That’s more than many other English-speaking countries, including the United States, Ireland and Australia, but below most eastern European nations. Latvia tops the charts.

The OECD found that the French drink more than we do and yet only 21 per cent of French adults are classed as binge drinkers – far fewer than in this country. In Italy it’s even fewer. Only 4 per cent of adults binge drink. Most of it is wine and almost all of it is drunk at the dining table rather than in boozy sessions at the local bar. It’s much the same picture in Spain where only 6 per cent of adults have the dubious distinction of being a binge drinker.

Men, of course, drink even more than women. Almost half admitted to binge drinking every month. And yet it’s the women drinkers who invariably make the headlines. And it’s women drinkers who are portrayed in the media in the most negative light. That was the conclusion of a study by researchers at the University of Glasgow and Glasgow Caledonian University. The figures highlight the gulf in drinking culture between the UK and our European neighbours.

The study, which was published in BMJ Open, analysed 308 articles published over two years in seven UK national newspapers. It found that the amount women drink was given far more coverage than the amount men drink. Not only that, but women drinkers were depicted far more critically than men. The coverage not only exaggerates the amount women drink, but it also paints a very different picture of the way they are depicted as a result of it.

It typically linked women’s binge drinking to how it affected their appearance and presented them as “haggard, vulnerable, socially transgressive and a burden to their male drinking companions.” Chris Patterson, from the public health sciences unit at the University of Glasgow, said: “Media coverage of women’s binge drinking isn’t just about health or public disorder; it also performs a moralising, paternalistic role, reflecting broader social expectations about women’s public behaviour.

And Patterson raises what many will see as an even greater concern: “As well as unfairly stigmatising women, media coverage of binge drinking is problematic in terms of communicating information about a serious health issue to the public. Evidence suggests that the public view binge drinking as a masculine activity and statistics tell us that men do drink more than women in reality, but the media are depicting a different story.”

But does any of this matter? Many will say that it doesn’t. If certain newspapers are bursting with pictures of young women in short skirts on a night out clearly the worse for wear but enjoying every minute of it… so what?

Dr Carol Emslie, from the school of health and life sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University, says it does matter. She points out that men are more likely to die from alcohol-related causes but the media’s “disproportionate focus on women’s drinking, including the headlines and images used, may lead the public to think that it is primarily young females who are the problem drinkers.”

The reality is, she says, that alcohol is more freely available, more affordable and more heavily marketed today than it has been for decades, and excessive drinking affects all sections of the population.

Dr Richard Piper, the chief executive of Alcohol Change UK, agrees and says that harm is “totally avoidable.” The responsibility, he says, rests with the government. He thinks there is an “overwhelming need for the government to introduce measures that we know will reduce alcohol harm and save lives such as proper controls on alcohol marketing, introducing minimum unit pricing in England like we already have in Scotland and Wales, and clearer alcohol labelling.”

The OECD report says that British people’s harmful drinking habits are putting them at high risk of illnesses including strokes, heart disease and cancer, and placing huge pressure on the NHS. It also wants minimum pricing for alcohol, a rule that has already been introduced in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. It also calls for smoking-style warning labels to be placed on beer and wine, as well as advertising restrictions to prevent the promotion of alcoholic drinks.

Dr Rachel Orritt, from Cancer Research UK, said: “Drinking alcohol causes seven different types of cancer. Drinking doesn’t mean that someone will definitely get cancer, but the risk is higher the more alcohol someone drinks. Whatever people’s drinking habits are, cutting down will reduce the risk, which is why we welcome the Scottish government’s proposals to continue with minimum unit pricing for alcohol.

“There are other steps that people can take if they are concerned about their cancer risk as well. Not smoking, keeping a healthy weight and eating a healthy, balanced diet are all proven to reduce people’s risk of cancer too.”

There will, of course, be many who argue not only that the risks of drinking are often exaggerated but that there can even be benefits. The caveat, inevitably, is how much we drink. Women, say many experts, should drink no more than one glass of wine a day (five ounces) and men no more than two glasses or the equivalent in beer. If we stick to those limits it can raise our ‘good’ cholesterol levels and that can reduce the possibility of a heart attack or a stroke or hardened arteries. Heavy drinking has the opposite effect. Some research suggests that moderate drinkers are more likely to exercise than people who don't drink and the benefits of exercise on the heart are obvious.

There’s also research that suggests people who drink moderately are less likely to get kidney stones – possibly because alcohol, like tea or coffee, makes you urinate and that helps clear out the tiny crystals that form stones. But again there’s a caveat: drinking too much makes you dehydrated and that actually increases the risk of harm to your kidneys.

Probably the least controversial of all the claims that drinking is good for you centres on its social effects. Most accept that an hour or two in a pub with convivial company can cheer you up. Only a few days ago new research claimed that laughing aloud produces endorphins which can not only reduce pain but also produce feelings of wellbeing. But yet again it depends on how much you drink.

So my question for you is whether you reckon you drink too much and do you believe it’s causing you any harm. And how likely are you to change your drinking habits? As for me… well, I don’t often express my own opinion in this space, but I should confess that for many years I was a heavy drinker. I now drink very little. And I’ve never felt better!

Let me know what you think.