Lies, damn lies, and alcohol statistics

Cocktails
James Morgan
James Morgan
Occasionally, I stumble upon a press release that leaves me with only one question: ‘And?’ This week, the news broke that we Brits are underreporting our alcohol consumption. Yes, it seems that citizens of the United Kingdom are not telling their doctors the whole truth about the amount of booze that they’re putting away…

And?

For some, visiting their doctor has become less about getting themselves fixed and more about getting told off. Few of us would deny the fact that our vexed physicians are making valid points, but why put ourselves in this position voluntarily? No, it’s far easier to tell our doctors what we think they want to hear.
In truth, this reaction is extremely unfair on those who conducted the research. I don’t know why I respond in this way to studies whose conclusions confirm what I have long since assumed to be the case. One of the major advantages offered by scientific investigation is the fact that it negates the need for us to rely on our assumptions. After all, the study wouldn’t have been any more worthwhile if it had contradicted my preconceptions. Research, by its very nature, is an unbiased exploration of what is actually the case. If it weren’t for the scientist’s disinterest in his or her findings, we wouldn’t be able to trust a word that came out of his or her mouth.

My lack of interest in research that confirms my existing suspicions is completely unjustified. However, allow me to explain why I’m not surprised by the fact that the United Kingdom has become a nation of clandestine tipplers, and more controversially, why I believe that this finding is a sign of progress. Of course, the following argument is based entirely on presuppositions. Everything that I’m about to say could be completely off the mark. I suppose that’s why I’m a journalist and not a scientist; because I’m too lazy to collect evidence before spouting my opinions.

First of all, to say that we’ve become a nation of secret drinkers – it seems to me – is somewhat misleading. We’ve only become secret drinkers in the sense that we now feel the need to lie about how much we drink. I suppose that this all depends on your upbringing, but in my experience, it simply isn’t the case that we drink more today than we did 10, 20 or 30 years ago. To paraphrase a well-known comedian,* ‘binge drinking’ has always existed in the UK. It used to be called ‘drinking’.

Regardless of whether British drinking has increased or declined over the years, the fact remains that half of the alcohol sold in this country is unaccounted for in the alcohol consumption figures reported to GPs. This could mean one of two things. Either we are a collection of rampant booze hoarders or we are fibbing about how much we’re actually drinking. Whilst I’m sure that lots of people have the odd bottle that they’re saving for a special occasion, I don’t think that this quite makes up for the shortfall.

Everybody knows that doctors have a tendency to be a little intrusive. I have a friend who sought medical attention for his ingrown toenail, yet was made to hop on the scales because his GP thought he was looking a little portly. We can’t really blame them for this approach. We’re constantly being told that we’ve turned into a nation of obese, inactive, tobacco-addicted, cholesterol-filled slobs, yet we’re not doing much to rectify the situation. Without a proactive community of medical professionals, we’re in genuine danger of exploding, en masse.

Still, this hands-on approach might be creating a subsection of patients who are wary of being judged. For some, visiting their doctor has become less about getting themselves fixed and more about getting told off. Few of us would deny the fact that our vexed physicians are making valid points, but why put ourselves in this position voluntarily? No, it’s far easier to tell our doctors what we think they want to hear.

I doubt this phenomenon is exclusive to alcohol. I would imagine that if comparisons were to be made between the reported consumption of fatty foods and cigarettes, similar discrepancies would be uncovered. If doctors believed everything their patients told them, they’d more than likely become perplexed by the number of teetotal, non-smoking exercise fanatics who were being struck down by cirrhosis, lung cancer and heart disease.

You might think that I’m painting a pretty bleak picture here. How can I possibly suggest that millions of people lying to their doctors about how much they drink is a sign of progress? Well, I would argue that this state of affairs is simply proof that we know we’re in the wrong. I’ve just included tobacco consumption in our country’s list of major vices, yet in truth, this is an example of a hazardous behaviour that has been decreasing for some time. Just take a look at these smoking statistics from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). In 1948, 82 per cent of men in Great Britain smoked. Just over sixty years later, smoking has become a much-maligned pastime for the weak willed. Consider how attitudes have changed since England introduced its 2007 ban on smoking in public places. 2007! It seems to me like a lifetime has passed since folks were allowed to light up indoors, yet within less than a decade, smokers have become pariahs. Even today’s smokers are against smoking.

With any luck, alcohol consumption will head in a similar direction; perhaps not to the extent that it’s banned in public and widely dismissed as a filthy habit, but at least to the point where we fully accept the associated risks of overindulgence and concede that we shouldn’t be imbibing as much as we are. The fact that we make the effort to lie to our doctors is an indication that we recognise the dangers of our behaviour. It’s not the 1970s any more; we don’t all sit around in smoke-filled pubs night after night, drinking whisky as though it were a perishable commodity. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I think that our attitudes towards drinking are gradually shifting. It’s just a matter of time before our behaviour catches up.


* The name of whom, I can’t for the life of me remember**
** It might have been Ed Byrne***
*** Don’t quote me on that

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