Half of middle-aged men ‘problem drinkers’? This is a new era of hysteria

    18 May 2016

    Middle-aged men are at mortal risk from the demon drink and don’t even know it, according to a recent press release from Drinkaware. As the Telegraph reported it…

    Almost half of middle-aged men are putting their health at risk by drinking an average of 18 pints of alcohol a week.

    A study has revealed 3.5 million men (44 per cent) drink nearly two and a half times the amount of alcohol recommended by health experts.

    The recommended amount is 14 units of alcohol a week — seven pints of beer.

    Research by Drinkaware has revealed men aged 45 to 64 are consuming an average of 37 units a week and more than half of those surveyed (54 per cent) believe it will have no impact on their health.

    My first reaction to this story was to think ‘good for those middle-aged men’. Perhaps, like me, they have realised that the new alcohol guidelines were developed by temperance activists and are not worth the paper they are printed on.

    My second reaction was to wonder why anybody would want to wag their fingers at middle-aged men. Moral panics about alcohol in this country have traditionally centred on young people, but the teetotal tendencies of generation snowflake have made this increasingly difficult and so attention has turned to pensioners and the middle-aged. Demand nannying regulations to protect children if you must, but surely we can trust the over-45s to make their own decisions?

    My third reaction was to check the data upon which Drinkaware made their claims. It turns out to be based on a survey of just 476 people. The assertion that ‘more than half of those surveyed believe it will have no impact on their health’ is based on an even smaller number: just 160 people.

    To put those 476 people into context, there are more than eight million men aged between 45 and 64 in the UK. Claiming that ‘Half of middle-aged British men classed as problem drinkers’ (the Daily Mail) and ‘Half of middle-aged men drink too much’ (the Telegraph) on the basis of such a small sample is a stretch, to say the least.

    Fortunately, we have official statistics with a much larger sample from the Health Survey for England. Those figures show that men aged 45 to 64 drink an average of 18 units a week — not the 37 units claimed by Drinkaware. It also found that six per cent of men aged 45 to 64 drink more than 50 units a week — not the 10 per cent claimed by Drinkaware.

    These are significant disparities. Drinkaware is slightly closer to the truth when it claims that 44 per cent of men aged 45 to 64 drink more than 14 units a week (the Health Survey for England says the figure is 36 per cent), but so what? Until January, the arbitrary guideline of 14 units only applied to women. The old (though equally arbitrary) guideline for men was 21 units, and the Health Survey for England found that only 25 per cent of men exceeded that.

    If large numbers of middle-aged men believe that ignoring the new guidelines will have no deleterious effect on their health, they may be exercising sound judgment. Why should they pay heed to a Chief Medical Officer who ignores the mountain of evidence showing that moderate drinking is good for them? Why should they take Britain’s guidelines seriously when every country in the world has different recommendations? Why, indeed, should they assume that they should drink no more than women when most countries have higher guidelines for men?

    The facts are clear to anyone who chooses to look them up. Since 2005, there has been a 29 per cent fall in the proportion of 45- to 64-year-old males who drink alcohol on five or more days a week. Alcohol-related deaths have fallen by seven per cent since 2008. Alcohol-related violent crime has fallen by 40 per cent since 2007. Under-18 hospital admissions due to alcohol have fallen by 41 per cent in the last six years. The number of children (11-15) drinking alcohol has fallen by more than half since 2003 and is currently at the lowest rate on record. Drink driving related accidents fell by 45 per cent between 2003 and 2014 and are also the lowest rate on record. Pubs and clubs are closing left, right and centre. Per capita alcohol consumption has dropped by a fifth since 2004.

    In light of these facts, the neo-temperance lobby is in desperate need of ‘problem inflation’ to keep the narrative of Booze Britain afloat. Lowering the drinking guidelines was their lifeline. It turned two and a half million ‘low risk’ drinkers into ‘increasing risk’ drinkers overnight and allowed health campaigners to create hysteria about grown men drinking the equivalent of less than two bottles of wine per week. It is an absurd situation and it is no surprise to find the likes of Drinkaware gold-plating this piffle with dodgy and statistically meaningless surveys of their own. Expect more of the same in the months and years ahead.