Archive - November, 2010

Wine, drugs and an unhealthy debate

For an audio version of this post, click here:

I should warn you now, I am a dedicated proponent of a non-communicable disease.

There is only ALCOHOL!

The debate has been stirred by a report by Professor David Nutt, the former UK chief drugs advisor, published in The Lancet called “Drug harms in the UK“. However, it continues a debate we had at the recent European Wine Bloggers Conference as well, on “Freedoms, Rights and Responsibilities”.

What I discovered in that very interesting session in Vienna, with presentations by Adam Watson-Brown (Information Society & Media Department, EU Commission), George Sandeman (representing Wine In Moderation) and Ken Payton (blogger at Reign of Terroir), was exactly how governments and official bodies think of alcohol – and it makes a BIG difference in understanding their approach to the debate.

In this debate, there is no “Wine”. There are no “Spirits”. There are no “Alcopops”, “RTDs“, “artisanal cordials” or even “record-breaking alcoholic beverages”. There is no ‘good alcohol’ or ‘bad alcohol’. There is only ALCOHOL!

ALCOHOL is not a feature of a beverage, a natural by-product of age-old techniques, nor even an industrial process. Alcohol is a drug, and its consumption is a ”non-communicable disease”.

“The World Health Report 2002: Reducing risks, promoting healthy life, identifies five important risk factors for non-communicable disease in the top ten leading risks to health. These are raised blood pressure, raised cholesterol, tobacco use, alcohol consumption, and overweight.” WHO fact sheet No. 273

In other words alcohol is seen as a disease to be eradicated.

It is like banning bridges because they can be used to jump off

Before I go further, let me state that I agree that alcohol abuse is a problem is many societies, and a factor in many problems, but I believe alcohol is also very different from most of the other drugs listed in Prof. Nutt’s study and so this debate is very ‘unhealthy’. Let me explain how.

The chart we have all seen today is this:

Most harmful drugs - The Lancet

This illustrates that, according to a long list of criteria relating to the harm to the individual and also harm to society, and its widespread consumption, alcohol comes top of the list, delivering to the world’s media the nicely controversial headline: “Alcohol is more harmful than heroine“.

What this chart, and this way of thinking completely misses, in my opinion, is that this is only half of the story. It is like banning bridges because they can be used to jump off.

Take a look again at the list, but from a different perspective. Which of these items listed CONTRIBUTE to individuals and society, if any? Where are the BENEFITS? I think most of us would be very hard pressed to say that Crack, Methylamphetamine and Heroine contribute to society in any meaningful way. [Heroine is interesting. Unlike 'Alcohol', this chart doesn't list 'Opiates' where Heroine = BAD but medically administered Morphine = GOOD]. However, the two ‘legal’ drugs on the list, Tobacco and Alcohol do.

Another look at Nutt Report on drugs and alcohol

Another look at Nutt Report on drugs and alcohol

[note: this is my crude attempt at modifying the graph, sourced from The Lancet, for illustration only]

(I’m not going to make the case for Tobacco, others can do that, but even here there are some benefits to society from taxation, even if they are outweighed by the costs.)

But alcohol IS different.

Let’s take wine, but you could argue a similar case for beer and some spirits too. The benefits include:

  • Huge revenue streams from Duty & VAT receipts to the Treasury
  • Vast numbers of people employed in production, supply, retail, marketing and distribution (not just winemakers, but bar and pub owners & staff, importers, wine shop assistants, glass manufacturers, cork companies, shipping companies, label printers, designers, journalists, educators, etc.)
  • Sustainable environmental benefits from land cultivated, often where little else would be viable, and people making a living in rural areas instead of moving to cities
  • Developing tourism infrastructure around regions dependent on wine production
  • Thousands of years of historic and cultural legacies in production and consumption

I’m not even going to touch on the contentious issue of potential individual health benefits from moderate drinking.

I am not in a position to quantify these benefits, but others such as the WSTA might. However, it is obvious that these benefits do exist.

One of the main reasons this needs to be taken into account is because the blunt weapons of punitive taxation and medical warnings can disproportionately reduce the BENEFITS instead of reducing the harm. Raising taxes on alcohol might cut consumption rates, but it also costs jobs and tax revenue. It reduces the margin and incentive to increase quality for retailers and producers because their products are less affordable. This benefits large brands less connected to any local, cultural investments and driven by sales volume growth (which is the opposite of the policy’s aim).

It won’t be just those who are abusing alcohol the most that are affected, but everyone else as well. The approach is backfiring. We already have some of the highest taxes in the world, yet their own evidence shows that things are still not improving.

We have to change the rules of the debate they have set

I went to the EWBC hoping to make the point that wine blogging can have a positive impact on society, through education and reconnecting consumers with the cultural roots of wine enjoyment so that alcohol may be consumed responsibly. I realised, sadly, that the anti-alcohol lobby wasn’t just ignoring us, we weren’t even speaking the same language.

So, how do we engage with the discussion? We have to change the rules of the debate they have set. It is a time for much more concerted efforts by wine lovers and wine businesses.

Unfortunately, printing messages on labels and adverts about “drinking responsibly” are not the answer.

We need clearer data on the benefits of the alcohol trade to individuals, governments, countries and regions. We need to broaden out the debate about dealing with alcohol abuse from the purely medical, to the cultural and economic areas too. And we need informed politicians willing to have a sensible debate about these points without fear of being pilloried by the media.

[UPDATE: 03/11/2010 An interesting follow-up on this debate from an NHS site is here]

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