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Is talking about alcohol’s “health benefits" a nonsense?

Published:  28 July, 2017

Scotch leaders are currently holding a collective breath for the Supreme Court’s decision on whether or not to allow the Scottish government to introduce the long-contested 50p minimum unit price for alcohol.

But as the court considers its decision – which hinges on whether or not minimum pricing is an effective way to deal with high-risk drinkers who disproportionately buy cheap alcohol – another health-related argument has entered the conversation.

This time, researchers have revealed findings that show moderate alcohol consumption, in particular wine, can lower the risk of diabetes in both men and women.

The survey, published in Danish journal, Diabetologia, monitored just over 70,000 men and women on their drinking habits and health and for five years, and found that for both genders, seven glasses of wine a week lowered the risk of diabetes by 25% to 30% compared with having less than one glass.

It’s another strong headline that’s been picked up by the wider media.

And, unlike the other findings reported by The Guardian this week that said 63,000 people in England will die over the next five years due to cheap booze, it is one that plays in the favour of the drinks trade.

But does it?

On the surface, the Danish findings chime with the widely accepted belief that a couple of glasses of red wine a week is good for you.

But its also reinforces the idea of drinking for health benefits, which surely confuses the already complicated debate on health and alcohol-related harm.

This confusion was highlighted today by Dave Roberts, director general of the Alcohol Information Partnership (AIP), the trade-funded initiative which deals with issues of alcohol misuse.

He said: “This report demonstrates the complex relationship between alcohol consumption and health. The data from multiple studies suggests that moderate consumption of alcohol may be associated with certain health benefits for some adults, including a protective effect against cardiovascular disease and diabetes. However we do not recommend that anyone drink alcohol for its potential health benefits - for adults who do choose to drink, it is important to drink in moderation.”

The main line here is “we do not recommend that anyone drink alcohol for its potential health benefits”.

And this from an organisation that continually goes out of its way to highlight the UK’s increasingly moderate drinking habits.

“Any objective discussion about alcohol in society needs to start by recognising that according to government figures, 74% of people drink within the Chief Medical Officers new and more stringent guidelines, underage drinking is falling, alcohol related crime is down and younger adults drink less year on year,” said a spokesperson recently in discussion with Harpers.

The AIP has also come out against measures like minimum pricing, suggesting instead that the sector should “target local interventions” that change the behaviour of the minority rather than punishing the responsible majority.

The issue here is perhaps terminology.

There is a difference between drinking alcohol as part of “a healthy, balanced lifestyle” as it says on the AIP’s website, and “health benefits”.

“Health benefits” is what you get from eating broccoli or drinking water.

Perhaps we should be talking more about health side-effects, or by-products.

Because yes, wine has many benefits, including the lovely endorphins it triggers when shared with family or friends or drunk even alone.

But while the number of alcohol-related deaths might be falling, how many broccoli-related deaths have the ONS reported this year?

The report from the University of Southern Denmark wasn’t commissioned by the UK’s alcohol industry.

But it highlights the confusion around the way we partake in conversations around alcohol and health.

Minimum pricing might not be the way forward, but ignoring alcohol’s dangers is dangerous for everyone, including those who buy, sell and drink responsibly.