Tag Archives: health

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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Open minds for troubled times

Chair
Come on in for an interview!
Image by tommy forbes via Flickr

I’ve reported, commented and complained before on this blog about how the UK government treats consumers and business when it comes to alcohol.

My position has usually been one of incredulity, cynicism and anger at the decisions being taken by politicians, in particular when it comes to taxation of alcohol.

I’d like to extend an offer to a politician or civil servant to explain to me, in person, what this country’s government is doing, and why.

I was prompted to write this post by the announcement that a UK parliamentary committee was to be set up to examine:

… alcohol-related health problems and the consequences of these for the NHS, plus the role of the alcohol industry, police and government departments in addressing alcohol-related harm. [as well as] … examine “whether the drinking culture in England should change, and, if so, how”. (from just-drinks)

Just my sort of question!

Governments and politicians like to be SEEN to be doing something, no matter how ineffective in practice. In general, I do believe that politicians are scared of talking sense about alcohol (or many matters of real personal choice for that matter) and governments are quite happy to continue to be able raise lots of money from a ‘sin tax‘.

The problem is that the government has become dependent on the money raised from Duty on alcohol. They couch their revenue generation as a “strategy” to combat alcohol abuse whilst damaging businesses that could help to change people’s attitudes to alcohol and still, in my opinion, not doing nearly enough to address the underlying causes of that abusive behaviour.

I think many in the wine business in particular would probably agree.

HOWEVER, I will also admit that my experience is limited. I work with great wines, wines made by people who care about their product and which is sold mainly to those who appreciate them. I don’t have much day to day experience of the front line of a binge-drinking culture that I admit does exist in places in this country.

So I’d like to extend an offer to a politician or civil servant to explain to me, in person, what this country’s government is doing, and why. I don’t want a press release, I want a discussion. I’m prepared to post the results on here, either as a new post or in the comments. I would even consider filming a meeting and putting it on the blog for others to view.

Is that you? Or maybe, you know someone who could come along to chat? Let them know!

I am not a campaigner with an agenda as such. I’m not promising those who agree with me to be the best prepared, most vocal champion of the alcohol business (there are people like the WSTA for that). I am not a politician, nor expert debater. However, the government needs to convince me, and people like me, if we are to support their current approach, and if they can’t, then listen to us about finding another way forward.

I’ll even give you an idea of the questions:

  1. What evidence is there that high duty rates stop young people from drinking too much?
  2. What meaningful dialogue can you point to that shows you admit that alcohol consumption is a perfectly acceptable part of our society & culture in moderation? Have  you ever done anything other than preach?
  3. By focusing on the price/cost mechanic, are you not damaging small, independent importers/retailers who might engender a respect/appreciation for alcohol, and instead driven people to the multiple grocers, with their massive purchasing power to offset that duty cost, where no such education takes place?
  4. Is the excess consumption of alcohol not more closely related to opportunity IN GENERAL, rather than opportunity to buy alcohol? Would fewer kids get blind drunk if you inspired them with alternatives for their time & effort, rather than chastising them?
  5. What about the law-abiding middle classes of moderate consumers who are being criticised for their alcohol consumption? Where is the data to back your 21 units safe limit campaign?

These are just some of the questions off the top of my head. If you have any others you’d like to ask, let me know.

So, then, who’s willing to try and convince me? There’s a chair waiting!

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Wine Therapy

“Anti-wrinkle cream there may be, but anti-fat-b*stard cream there is not” Dave

What is “Wine Therapy”?

This is a detox treatment for the serious oenophile (wine lover), but with a difference. Instead of focusing on the consumption of wine, this is about those parts your regular tipple just can’t reach.

Wine Therapy (Oenotherapy, Vino Terapia, … etc.) claims to take the health benefits of wine to a new level by slapping them on your face, rubbing them on your skin or reducing them to a pill format that you can swallow without having to swirl.

Sound like fun yet?

I was recently invited to such a treatment whilst visiting Rioja. My treatment involved turning up at a spa, dressing only in the flimsiest shorts on Earth, and lying on a plastic sheet on a heated bed. Pretty dodgy so far.

Next, my therapist slathered my skin with a mixture made from honey & the tartrate deposits from wine barrels. How these “polyphenol rich deposits” (or something like that) are supposed to pass their antioxidant, and therefore anti-ageing, properties to me I’m not sure. However, having gritty goo rubbed all over you for 40 minutes is surprisingly enjoyable.

Next comes the wrap. Feeling like a certain overweight character about to do a Full Monty, I lay there wrapped in that plastic sheet to “absorb” (and sweat) whilst more vinous treatments were applied to my feet.

Next a strong mit and a shower, ready for the oil rub (I think there was some grape must extract there somewhere). Finally, feeling all rosy and fresh, I was served a delicate infusion (no grapes, and certainly no wine) and told to swallow a Resveratrol pill made from the concentration of grape skins and pips.

I must admit I felt good, but any form of massage and skin treatment would do that. As for any “health benefits” from the natural properties of grapes … well, maybe there was, and maybe there wasn’t, but I think I’d still rather take my grape-based medicine by the glass-full instead.