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We as Members should question the credibility of alcohol advice, but our primary role is surely to consider the wisdom and effectiveness of such guidance from a public policy viewpoint. The guidelines fail to acknowledge the decades of research demonstrating that moderate alcohol consumption is compatible with a healthy lifestyle. Multiple studies since the 1970s show that light to moderate alcohol drinkers have a lower mortality rate than non-drinkers or heavy drinkers. When plotted on a graph, the relationship between moderate consumption and total mortality appears as a J-shaped curve, demonstrating the benefits of light to moderate alcohol consumption compared with both abstinence and heavy drinking.
I would not presume to argue with the chief medical officer’s opinion that any alcohol is damaging, but I do not believe that as a matter of public policy, an abstinence approach is either wise or effective. We recognise that recommending abstinence is a counterproductive policy in tackling teenage pregnancies, yet we are asked to imagine that saying that there is no safe amount of alcohol is an effective way of tackling alcohol abuse. The previous unit limit might have been an arbitrary figure, but it was a realistic target for most people and helped reinforce the message that alcohol needs to be kept to light and moderate levels. The guidelines threaten that.
As well as significant evidence about physical health, there is growing evidence about the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption in a safe and social environment for mental health. In particular, a recent study commissioned by the Campaign for Real Ale from Oxford University found that people who regularly visit a community-type pub tend to have more close friends on whom they can call for support, and that they are happier, healthier and more trusting of others. A moderate amount of alcohol improves wellbeing and some social skills, just as it has been shown to improve other cognitive abilities and health.
Any future guidance must, of course, be cautious, but it should also recognise the protective effects of moderate alcohol consumption. I also advocate withdrawing the advice that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption so that we can concentrate on the social and medical benefits of limiting alcohol consumption to moderate levels.