Are we still drinking too much if it's a nice Merlot?

Yes, we are. And it’s the older, affluent, 'under pressure' generation who will be filling hospital beds

Click to follow
The Independent Online

News arrives from the charity Age UK that we’re drinking too much; this can be filed alongside revelations that the Earth is round and British summers aren’t what they used to be.

It’s tempting, in the face of yet more booze-related studies, to roll our eyes and get another round in. But look closely at recent findings and a picture emerges that goes against the prevailing narrative that the problem lies with our legless youth.

This latest study, conducted by Age UK’s chief economist, Professor Jose Iparraguirre, looked at 9,000 people and shows that the hardest drinkers are older, well-educated types who are comfortably off and lead sociable, health-conscious lives. “Our findings suggest that harmful drinking in later life is more prevalent among people who exhibit a lifestyle associated with affluence and with a ‘successful’ ageing process,” he concludes.

This comes two months after a study from the alcohol education charity Drinkaware, which registered concern at the UK’s “hidden drinkers”, the  45- to 64-year-olds regularly drinking above the lower risk limits (14 units a week for women, and 21 for men).

Of course, we know the middle-classes are partial to a glass of wine, but they are rarely the ones we’re confronted with in disapproving discussions about binge drinking.

According to lore, it’s the young and uneducated clogging up A&E on Saturday nights and putting a strain on the already overstretched NHS. Yet the data shows that youngsters drinking themselves silly simply don’t exist in the droves we’re led to believe (earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics showed that weekly binge drinking had fallen by 10 per cent since 2005, while a quarter of 16- to 25-year-olds were abstaining altogether).

Instead it’s the grown-ups, the ones with nice houses and smart cars, who are getting regularly sozzled. You won’t see them picking fights outside off-licences or staggering out of pubs: they’re doing it quietly behind closed doors. The implications, though, are just as serious. They’re the ones increasingly filling hospital beds with life-threatening complaints, among them liver disease and cancer.

There have, in recent years, been calls from doctors for the Government to impose a minimum unit price  for alcohol. Yet it’s hard to imagine this would make a dent in the drinking habits of those for whom a five-quid bottle of pinot grigio is embarrassingly déclassé. It takes a comfortable salary to be able to drink over the recommended units on a daily basis. If metropolitan postcodes are now  off-limits for low-paid workers, so are the wine aisles in Waitrose.

So what is it that’s driving our well-to-do professionals to hit the bottle? Should we feel worried for these poor souls getting quietly bladdered in front of the telly? It’s easy to imagine that the stresses of their jobs are to blame. These are, broadly, people in senior positions with mortgages, gym subscriptions and, in many cases, school or university fees to pay. They may not be on the breadline but the pressures of their lifestyle are, to them, very real.

For the daily boozers, there’s also a sense of reward that comes with cracking open the merlot after a hard day’s graft. People come up with all sorts of reasons as to why they “need” a drink, whether it’s the kids playing up, an awful boss or a deadly commute.

As an ex-drinker (migraines have put an end to years of contented boozing) looking unscientifically at my own social circle, I see friends wisecracking about wine o’clock, feigning regret at the morning’s empties and comparing hangovers. Most say they drink too much, but few are really monitoring their intake.

Ignorance plays a part here. Perhaps if, collectively, we were properly educated about the effects of excessive drinking, in the same way that we are with cigarettes, we would think twice about opening a fresh bottle.

My father had cancer of the stomach and oesophagus in his early forties, a result of 20 or so years of heavy drinking and smoking. Happily, after what was then groundbreaking surgery, he lived for another 30 years. As my brother and I were growing up, he would tell us grisly tales of lung cancer patients dragging oxygen tanks after them while they went outside to wheeze on a ciggie, in the hope that it would put us off smoking for life. He never mentioned the booze, though.

These days cigarettes come with stomach-churning health warnings – there’s nothing like sparking up while looking at a picture of a chargrilled lung. Annoying and intrusive as it might be, perhaps a similar, fear-filled approach should be taken with alcohol. Only then will we know for certain how much is too much.