To a degree, the British government’s recent freak-out over alcohol is understandable. The nation’s tabloids regularly carry stories featuring individuals getting falling-down drunk and doing stupid things. “Drunk chef, 23, who used an aerosol deodorant can and lighter as a makeshift flamethrower to set his neighbour’s head on fire is jailed” is just one of the recent stories. Do a Google photo search of “London binge drinking” and pages of appalling images appear. So too with “Liverpool binge drinking,” “Manchester binge drinking,” etc. The photos are modern versions of Hogarth’s Gin Lane.
U.K. media reports on binge-drinking stupidity are not limited to lads and yobs. The nation’s best and brightest turn up in the news for puking in the streets. Women also regularly star in these sordid media tales: “Furious judge blasts a drunk mother-of-five who ‘offended veterans around the world’ when she urinated on a war memorial TWICE as she REFUSES to apologise to families of the war dead” and “Drunken woman who attacked a policeman with a bottle as he tried to break up a fight outside a bar is spared jail because she is now pregnant.”
Read such things, day after day, and it’s no wonder some of Britain’s elites have panicked. “There is no safe level of drinking,” declared Dame Sally Davies, the United Kingdom’s chief medical officer, shortly after releasing new guidelines that told Brits to cut their intake. Any alcohol consumption could cause cancer, she warned. Talk is in the air of government imposing higher prices and mandating scarier warning labels.
This is a crazy overreaction to alcohol abuse, which critics inside and outside the medical profession have pointed out. The initial public reaction was to hoot at the “drink and you’ll get cancer” scare tactics and many rolled their eyes when media found Dame Sally enjoying drinks with her family.
But the neo-prohibitionist anxiety isn’t going away. If anything, it’s begun to spread, washing up on our shores. Last December, the Washington Post ran a bogus piece on the perils of alcohol with the ridiculously alarmist title “Americans are drinking themselves to death at record rates.” This past week, the Wall Street Journal produced its own article on the topic, repackaging the U.K. flip-out as a global movement. “For decades, beer, wine and liquor producers have been helped by a notion, enshrined in a number of governments’ dietary advice, that a little alcohol can provide modest coronary and other health benefits,” the Journal wrote. “Rapidly, that advice is shifting as health-policy officials around the world scrutinize their previous advice in the light of research pointing to possible cancer risks.” No doubt, the notoriously anti-alcohol World Health Organization was delighted to read that neo-prohibitionism is on the march around the globe. There may not, as yet, be any such march, but spread the story and it may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The “no alcohol is safe” argument ignores the fact that just about everything—even activities with obvious and abundant benefits—carries a risk or cost. Shall we forbid individuals from jogging because they sometimes have heart attacks or injure their knees or feet? Shall we warn people that eating can produce death by choking? (A few thousand die from gagging each year in America—step away from the dark green leafy vegetables!)
And then there’s the fact that—Dame Sally’s extreme position notwithstanding—reams of studies do show health benefits from moderate alcohol consumption. Indeed, the U.S. government’s 2015 health guidelines affirmed alcohol as a healthful part of the diet for various reasons.
And the benefits aren’t just matters of health. Responsible drinkers are not drags on society. On the contrary, drinkers tend to earn more than teetotalers and are twice as likely to exercise.
Most annoyingly, the neo-prohibitionists take the troubles caused by binge drinkers and alcoholics—a small minority of drinkers—and use them as an excuse to punish everyone else. This, even though the binge drinkers and alcoholics would be the last people to be dissuaded or discouraged from drinking.
Americans would be wise to keep a close eye on our government officials to see that they do not get sucked into the U.K. madness. Already the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has become a little mealy-mouthed on the long-established cardiovascular benefits of moderate drink.
Full-on prohibition of the sort we had a century ago is unlikely, but a slow, creeping version is all too possible. First, government declares something to be dangerous; then it ratchets up the taxes on it, reduces access to it via regulations and demonizes its consumers. (See tobacco-less e-cigarettes for an ongoing example.) Will it happen? It would be foolish to assume it won’t.