Alcohol and the perception of risk

Having given up alcohol a year and a half ago I was feeling pretty pleased with my choice when I read this story in The Guardian:

Even the occasional drink is harmful to health, according to the largest and most detailed research carried out on the effects of alcohol, which suggests governments should think of advising people to abstain completely.

Moderate drinking has been condoned for years on the assumption that there are some health benefits. A glass of red wine a day has long been said to be good for the heart. But although the researchers did find low levels of drinking offered some protection from heart disease, and possibly from diabetes and stroke, the benefits were far outweighed by alcohol’s harmful effects, they said.

Dr Robyn Burton, of King’s College London, said in a commentary in the Lancet that the conclusions of the study were clear and unambiguous. “Alcohol is a colossal global health issue and small reductions in health-related harms at low levels of alcohol intake are outweighed by the increased risk of other health-related harms, including cancer,” she wrote.

But then you get to the concluding paragraphs which got me thinking about the perception of risk. I gave up drinking for lots of reasons, one of them being to improve my chances of long-term good health. However, unless you are an alcoholic, if you get sick you’ll probably not know how much the drinking contributed to it, if at all. I like David Spiegelhalter’s note to keep things in proportion.

But David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, said the data showed only a very low level of harm in moderate drinkers and suggested UK guidelines were very low risk.

“Given the pleasure presumably associated with moderate drinking, claiming there is no ‘safe’ level does not seem an argument for abstention,” he said. “There is no safe level of driving, but government do not recommend that people avoid driving. Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.”

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