Letter from Simon Kelner


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This week, I have been thinking about drinking.

The news that the Government is considering revising (upwards) its guidelines on the maximum amount we're supposed to drink was one thing. The other was the unutterably sad sight of the makeshift shrine to Amy Winehouse laid outside her house. There, among the messages of love and expressions of grief and the flowers and the sweet pictures, were empty cans of drink and vodka bottles. I couldn't quite understand it: if she'd died as a heroin addict, would people have placed used needles there instead? Of course not, but doesn't that illustrate our rather complicated relationship with alcohol? Even when it almost certainly contributed to someone's death, there is a certain glorification of drink: I know we've got the most awful hangover, but didn't we have a cracking time! For the latest year that figures are available - 2009 - alcohol-related deaths doubled in England and Wales, so this may not, in fact, be the time for ministers to play the role of mine host, elbows on the bar, and asking: what'll it be, sir? Just to recap, in 1987 the Royal College of Physicians set recommended levels of 21 units of alcohol a week for men, and 14 units for women. In a language we all understand, a unit is half a pint of ordinary strength beer, while an average glass of wine is two units, so you can see that you don't have to be Oliver Reed to go crashing through the state's recommended dosage. Anyway, 10 years after these guidelines were introduced, those responsible for setting them were forced to admit that they were based not on scientific evidence, but on guesswork. And now, given that recommended limits are higher in other countries and they seem to manage pretty well, perhaps the time is right to raise the bar, so to speak. But does any of this matter? Do we take it at all seriously? Have you ever heard anyone say: no, thanks, I've exceeded my limit as proscribed by the Department of Health? Whatever ministers suggest, we will continue to have, collectively and individually, our own relationship with alcohol, and set our own limits. Drink companies will continue to market to young people. And, as that awful street scene in Camden Town shows, there's very little we can do to save those who fall victim.

Simon Kelner is Editor-in-Chief of The Independent, The Independent on Sunday and i