Here’s the thing about people who deny the outrageous damage alcohol is having upon our global mental and physical health: Their responses make no actual sense. Along with climate change deniers and other nouveau Neanderthals, they are this century’s flat-earthers.

They say bizarre things about how we’ve been drinking alcohol for 9,000 years and that it’s fueled the development of the arts (it may well have stunted them but good job on the unsupported sweeping generalizations, guys). Or they bang on about it being “nanny state” dictatorial to label alcohol with health warnings (nine in ten Brits don’t know alcohol is a carcinogen — I’m thinking we should probably tell them, no?). Or they make nuanced “arguments” along the lines of, “Hitler was teetotaller, y’know,” as if not drinking means you’re more prone to genocide, hence alcohol must be good for you.

But I want to draw your attention to one particularly damaging example, which came from a professor, a statistician to be exact, and took the “bizarre” cake.

A doctorate in denial

Here’s the background. Recently, The Lancet published a colossal report that looked at the drinking habits of 600,000 people globally, unrolled the very real dangers of drinking even a teeny tiny little bit, and advised that health authorities worldwide start recommending abstinence, rather than moderation (a near-impossible concept for most drinkers). The key finding of the report was thus: “The level of alcohol consumption that minimized harm across health outcomes was zero.”

It was vindication for those who have been saying this for so very long — that alcohol is bad for us, even in the smallest amount, and that everyone should perhaps consider quitting, not just those poor, sad souls who have grown addicted to an exceptionally addictive substance.

But while The Lancet report was widely reported in the press, (which is brilliant since, a few years ago, it would have been buried), there was a catch: Every single British article I saw on the findings ended its piece on this quote, from a professor:

Given the pleasure presumably associated with moderate drinking, claiming there is no ‘safe’ level does not seem an argument for abstention,” said Professor David Spiegelhalter, a statistician who specializes in the understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge. “There is no safe level of driving, but the government does not recommend that people avoid driving. Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.”

Agggggggggh. And with that, everything that went before is discounted as overreacting poppycock. Drinking is like driving, right?! In fact, drinking is like living! Nobody would recommend not living, given there are risks involved! (Forfuck’ssake).

In response, here is my open letter to this professor, who with one glib comment probably gave millions permission to completely ignore this damning health report, and thus effectively sent them to an early grave.

“If you think driving and drinking have the same level of life necessity, you’re definitely as dependent on drinking as I was.”

Dear Professor Spiegelhalter,

The risk inherent in drinking is not an inevitable, necessary part of life.

Yours is essentially a wild-eyed opinion that makes no sense and sadly allows everyone reading this very important data to dismiss everything they have just read. “Well! It’s just like driving, isn’t it? We have to do it and it comes with risks. Pass the corkscrew, would you, Pamela?”

I would have parroted this pat, “There’s no safe limit to driving either, so there” at everyone who would listen, back in my drinking days. But, for Chrissake, if you think driving and drinking have the same level of life necessity, you’re definitely as dependent on drinking as I was.

We need to board vehicles, whether driven by ourselves or otherwise, in order to do things like getting to work without walking five miles or go for a vacation without setting out with a horse, carriage, and three days of bread and cheese. I’ve just moved house; if I hadn’t used a vehicle, I would have had to move 27 boxes, box-by-box, over 300 miles.

When you don’t drink, it doesn’t stop you from doing anything, other than having crucifying hangovers and dying earlier. I’m about to set off to see a friend in a vehicle; if I was to cycle there it would be an eight-hour round trip and I’d probably die en route. So, not the same.

“If you want to drink, crack on, but don’t kid yourself that the risks are unavoidable.”

If you want to drink, crack on, but don’t kid yourself that the risks are unavoidable. Don’t kid other people either. I have an attachment to red meat that I’m unwilling to let go of, despite the press. Bacon, in particular. But I don’t fool myself that red meat has to go into my mouth. I’d probably feel better without it, I’d certainly have a lower risk of cancer, and maybe one day I will try, but for now, I’ll eat bacon but with full awareness of the risks.

I also sometimes ride a bike without a helmet knowing full well that it could kill me if I take a tumble. These are risks I choose to take and you can choose to take the risks you want to.

Even if drinking was anything like driving, as I reported in my book, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, figures show that in Britain, you’re five times more likely to die from drinking than in a motoring accident. So, drinking is far riskier than getting behind a wheel. As a statistician, you should be more aware of this fact and much, much more responsible when talking to millions of the public who will take your careless opinion as gospel.

Listen, I’m a journalist, so I know exactly how the conversation went when whatever paper first decided to approach you. (To be fair to you, you had no way of knowing you were being set up to undermine the premise of this critical report by unwitting agents of our booze culture.) This is likely the conversation that transpired before they got you on the phone:

  1. Editor says, “We can’t tell our readers that quitting drinking is the best strategy, as it will seem preachy and nobody wants to hear that. We need to end the piece on a light, pro-drinking note,” they say, “that will endorse their near-future imbibing. It’s Friday, after all!”
  2. The publisher sweeps in and reminds the editor not to piss off the paper’s alcohol advertisers.
  3. OK, quick! The journalist is dispatched to find an “expert” who will say something along the lines of every pleasurable activity has risks, we can’t wrap ourselves in cotton wool, and if we were totally risk-averse we’d never cross the road again!

Sorry to break it to you but you were essentially an unwitting accomplice and unpaid mouthpiece for the alcohol industry. You’re welcome. I’m sure you’ll do better next time.

Catherine