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Demystifying the world of wine

Dame Sally Davies Chief Medical Officer UK adds to alcohol and health controversy - but temperance and prohibition aren't fun!

Dame Sally Davies, the UK's Chief Medical Officer, appeared in front of a Commons committee this week to defend the new alcohol guidelines.

She added to the controversy about the guidelines which were published in January 2016 saying "I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues and do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think - do I want the glass of wine or do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer? I take a decision each time I have a glass."

The official government advice on alcohol now says there is no safe level of drinking and is advocating 14 units of alcohol for both men and women in the UK, with the male limit down from the previous guidance of 21 units.

Despite evidence of the positive effect of moderate amounts of alcohol on health, the report behind the new guidelines, the so called J-curve, she said "they looked at that out of context with other issues and from the picture they concluded one unit a day, half a standard glass of wine, the estimated a very small overall benefit and a larger overall benefit for women.", "I don't know many men that drink half a glass of wine every day and what we did in discussion with the guideline group was look not only at those curves but we looked at short term harms.", "We have to balance what we've been discussing... half a glass of wine a day with the short term effects and the long term effects.", "Between all of us we came to the conclusion that for women drinking up to five units in a week aged over 55 there is some cardio protective effect.By the time they drink over five units and get to 14 units, the recommended upper level, they have lost that cardio protective effect."

Dame Sally also said: "Drinking any level of alcohol regularly carries a health risk for anyone, but if men and women limit their intake to no more than 14 units a week it keeps the risk of illness like cancer and liver disease low."

Sir David Spiegelhalter, professor of the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, said: 'These guidelines define 'low-risk' drinking as giving you less than a 1 per cent chance of dying from an alcohol-related condition. So should we feel ok about risks of this level? An hour of TV watching a day, or a bacon sandwich a couple of times a week, is more dangerous to your long-term health. In contrast, an average driver faces much less than this lifetime risk from a car accident. It all seems to come down to what pleasure you get from moderate drinking."

Sir David Spiegelhalter

This is the point, moderate "healthy drinking" has been dismissed as Davies falsel claims that the benefits have now been dismissed apart from at very low intake levels yet this is not the consensus of the majority of scientific literature. There is some but not conclusive evidence of an increased risk for certain cancers, particularly breast cancer but what Davies fails to mention that the risk of others cancers is reduced by alcohol consumption. 

David Spiegelhalter and others are correct that the chances of dying from a few glasses of wine a day are moderate compared with driving a car, smoking, doing no exercise or eating badly. At the end of the day life is about risk and if you took every risk into account you wouldn't leave the house and live a normal life. Since you'd be so miserable anyway, you'd probably die early anyway. Long live the "antidote's to civilsation"! Davies may want to be a tee totaler or near enough but many others have a richer, more enjoyable life savouring a delicious Burgundy, Australian Shiraz and so on.