Robert Drewe examines the latest alarmist findings on alcohol consumption – and finds them somewhat misleading. Thank goodness.
Shock! Drama! Panic! Modest drinkers around the world are reeling at the recent news on alcohol consumption. They’ve been warned that drinking just five glasses of wine, or five pints of beer, a week – a week! — can cause early death.
That famous and much-welcomed 90s survey advocating the heart-health benefits of red wine now seems like a bitter joke. A new British analysis of nearly 600,000 people published in the Lancet and New Scientist the other day reports that people drinking even 100g of alcohol every week – around five 175ml glasses of wine or pints of beer – have an increased risk of dying.
According to the survey, a 40-year-old who drinks 200g of alcohol per week – about 10 glasses of wine or pints of beer – has a lower life expectancy of two years.
Worse. Drinkers of more than 18 pints a week (two-and-a-half beers per day) or 18 glasses of wine (two-and-a-half wines each evening) could be shaving six years off their lives. Drink any more and the maths and alleged life span get even more upsetting.
The study analysed 599,912 drinkers in 19 countries, none of whom had a history of cardiovascular disease, and found an increase in all causes of death when more than 100g of alcohol was consumed every week.
The findings went even further than last year’s lowered consumption guidelines in Britain which recommended that both men and women shouldn’t drink more than 14 units or 112g of pure alcohol a week. This equates to six pints of four per cent strength beer or six 175ml glasses of 13 per cent wine.
Hmm. Those figures leave much to ponder, including questions to do with some famous English heavy drinkers. For example, if the Queen Mother hadn’t so enjoyed alcohol would she have lived — given her high level of grog consumption and the maths involved — to the age of 145, instead of the paltry 101 years she managed?
Moreover, would that major 20th century drinker Sir Winston Churchill have easily reached a century instead of his sadly premature death aged 90. (Incidentally, when he died in 1965 the average English male lifespan was 68 years.)
The Queen Mother’s “official drink fixer,” Major Colin Burgess, later recalled her drinking (90 units weekly) in the Daily Mail: “What was memorable was her fondness for red wine, particularly heavy clarets.”
“Her pattern of drinking rarely varied. At noon she had her first drink of the day — a potent mix of two parts of Dubonnet to one part of gin, followed by a bottle of claret with lunch and a glass of port.”
Later came the 6 p.m. ritual. “‘Colin, are we at the magic hour?’ she’d ask, and I’d mix her a Martini. After a couple, she’d sit down to dinner and drink two glasses of pink champagne. Of course, she also enjoying red wine throughout. Life for the Queen Mother followed a routine revolving largely around lunch and rather a lot of booze.”
Whenever she toured, she instructed her staff to hide bottles of gin in her hatboxes. “I couldn’t get through all my engagements without a little something.” At one official visit, she was surprised by her host offering her gin instead of a cup of tea. “I hadn’t realized I enjoyed that reputation,” she said. “But as I do, perhaps you could make it a large one.”
As for Churchill, he used to say, “I drink champagne at all meals, and buckets of claret in between”.
According to his biographer, William Manchester, “After waking and his morning scotches there was always some alcohol in his bloodstream. It reached its peak in the evening after two or three more Scotches, several glasses of Champagne, at least two brandies, and a highball.”
While visiting King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, Churchill was informed that for religious reasons he couldn’t drink during a banquet in his honor. He informed the monarch: “My own religion prescribes drinking alcohol as an absolute sacred ritual before, during and after all meals and the intervals between them.”
The drink habits of Britain’s beloved current monarch also don’t fit the strict early-death assumptions of the new British survey. For a start, Queen Elizabeth drinks four cocktails a day.
According to her cousin, Margaret Rhodes, in The Independent, the Queen has a gin before lunch and enjoys the cocktail that her mother made famous. She then takes wine with lunch and a dry Martini.
Her Majesty ends her day with a flute of Bollinger or Krug champagne, thereby racking up not the recommended maximum 14 alcohol units a week, but 42 units – which technically makes her a binge drinker. (And how old is she? And still going strong. Oh, yes, 91.)