Drinking and social class: who's counting?

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The Independent Online

In a shocking announcement that has the Home Counties up in arms (they rolled their eyes and went "tut" as one), a study has shown that middle-class people are a bunch of closet lushes. The report, by John Moores University, has shown that well-to-do areas such as Runnymede and Surrey Heath are showing alarming levels of secret tippling, with some residents admitting to drinking up to "two and a half bottles of wine a week – not including dinner parties".

The news is frightening, say the scientists, because at levels like this drinkers may increase their risk of developing "certain types of cancers" and unspecified liver problems. Which is where the well-meaning medics lose our interest. Talking about livers and variously raised risks of certain types of cancers is not exactly equivalent to covering cigarette packets with images of blackened lungs, facial growths and Bernard Manning. You can raise your risk of certain types of cancer by living in Cape Cod, according to some studies, and going out for a bottle of Shiraz and a lamb madras is so much more fun than that.

If doctors want to alert us to the dangers we are causing to our health, they are using the wrong language. Interviewed on the Today programme this week, Mark Bellis of the North West Public Health Observatory was very, very worried and almost comically vague. Pressed by Ed Stourton to name a "particular" example of alcohol's ill-effects, Bellis replied that an escalation in health problems can occur at "even very small levels". Asked to provide an "accurate" description of what "hazardous" drinking really means, he insisted that eight million people are doing it. I'm sure they are – and they are only going to continue.

For a long time, much of the health service's teaching on the dangers of alcohol has been based on the premise that drinkers can't get their fuggy heads around what a unit is. "A small glass of wine or half a pint of beer," they repeat, desperately, as their naughty charges pour themselves another large G&T. Hazardous drinking, whatever that is, occurs at between 22 and 50 units a week: two bottles of wine for a man or one and a half for a woman. Two bottles of wine a week. Surely the bottle you opened on Monday would have gone sour by Wednesday afternoon. And it's when they tell you about binge drinking that it really gets silly. A dangerous level is more than a pint and a half in a session, for a woman. So we realise our mistake halfway down the second pint, shrug and say, "Oh well, in for a penny – in for a pound"? If it's going to be a binge drinking night, make it a good 'un.

Amid the vagueness and dubious class distinctions, however, the weirdest omission in the way the John Moores study has been reported has been the other categories of bad and wrong drinking it that identifies. Below "hazardous" (two bottles a week, remember?) are other, unnamed sectors, along the lines of "silly", "naughty" and "a bit much on an empty stomach thank you vicar".

But above it is the "harmful" category that nobody wants to discuss. In it are 8 per cent of the population who are directly damaging their bodies by drinking more than 50 units of alcohol a week. But these people live in the poor areas of Salford and Liverpool, and measure their units in cheap spirits, not fine wines. Some of them probably drink no expensive bottles of wine a week – even including dinner parties. So what are saying to these people and their livers? That they can drink as much as they like as long as they stay away from Runnymede?

Ooh Betty, I've broken the USA

Pretty soon, a significant portion of the American TV audience is going to think that all British men are weedy incompetents with a fatal compulsion towards ladders. Fox TV has commissioned an American version of the Seventies series Some Mothers Do 'Ave Em, reviving Frank Spencer and his long-suffering Betty. Are they sure? Was there a typo in the ordering process? "I never would have dreamt 35 years ago when I originally wrote the series that dearly loved but disastrous Frank would be creating havoc on American soil," quipped the programme's creator, Raymond Allen. Having already given the USA Mr Bean, David Brent and Tony Blair, this is surely a nerd too far.

* $&*#%£@$ marvellous! A new study has stated the &*$%£@ obvious and declared that workplaces benefit from a &*$%£@$ good swear. Professor Yeruda Baruch found that a quick &*$% is a perfect way to "reflect solidarity and increase group cohesiveness". Calling your colleague a &*$%£@ is a "psychological phenomenon to relieve stress", he said – adding unreasonably that there are some professions (banking, nursing) in which swearing would be unwise and that bosses should not swear at their staff.

The professor has not gone far enough, the &*$%£@. Businesses should instigate swearing zones, in which &*$%£@-off middle managers could exchange "&*$%£@-yous and &*$%-offs". And why stop in the office? They could sell &*$%£@s at three to the pound (more for a &*$%) in the queue for the bank. And anyone who uses public transport during the rush hour could buy a carnet of &*$%£@s and &*$% the &*$%£@-&*$%£@$ lot of it.