Revealed in The Times this week that the guidelines on safe alcohol consumption limits that have shaped health policy in Britain for 20 years were "plucked out of the air" as an "intelligent guess".
The recommended weekly drinking limits of 21 units of alcohol for men and 14 for women, first introduced in 1987 and still in use today, have no firm scientific basis whatsoever. Since 1987 studies found evidence which suggested that the safety limits should be raised, but they were ignored by a succession of health ministers.
One found that men drinking between 21 and 30 units of alcohol a week had the lowest mortality rate in Britain. Another concluded that a man would have to drink 63 units a week, or a bottle of wine a day, to face the same risk of death as a teetotaller.
The disclosure comes from Richard Smith, a member of the Royal College of Physicians working party that produced it. He owns to "a feeling that you had to say something", and told The Times that the committee's epidemiologist at the time confessed that "it's impossible to say what's safe and what isn't" because "we don't really have any data whatsoever".
Mr Smith, a former Editor of the British Medical Journal, said that members of the working party were so concerned by growing evidence of the chronic damage caused by heavy, long-term drinking that they felt obliged to produce guidelines. "Those limits were really plucked out of the air. They were not based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee," he said.
The most recent report blamed middle-class wine drinkers for placing some of Britain's most affluent towns at the top of the "hazardous drinking" list, relied on the 1987 guidelines.
One Times reader wrote "So the harm a drug causes isn't quite what it seems? Quelle surprise. But imagine this argument being put forward in connection with an illegal drug like cannabis: no one would take it seriously. "Killer drug", "sends youngsters mad", and all the rest would drown out any and every claim to the contrary, no matter how sober or well-researched. I think it's time we put aside our assumptions, prejudices and hunches and had a hard look at all drug use in Britain - legal, illegal, and prescription. The government should announce a Royal Commission."
The GOS says: It won't though, will it? And if it did, it'd be a whitewash for the Public Health Nazis like Dawn Primarolo who this week snapped "This has to stop!" (there is, however, no truth in the rumour that she also clicked her heels and raised one arm in salute. Nor is she growing a very small moustache. No, really, she isn't).
Makes you wonder, though. If all the hoohah about excessive drinking can be based not on poor evidence, but on no evidence at all - what about the rest? Where's the hard evidence that passive smoking kills, for instance?
And then there's obesity, which is judged on that crudest of measurements, the BM Index. How seriously can we take that when half the England rugby team, according to the Index, are "clinically obese"? And what, exactly, is the distinction between "clinically obese" and just plain "fat"? It couldn't be, could it, that the only difference is that "clinically obese" sounds more technical so is less likely to be challenged by ordinary people?
I mean … these people are doctors, and scientists. They're experts. So they must be right, mustn't they? I mean, they wouldn't … make it up … would they?
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