As the sun sank slowly in the West last evening, many health-conscious middle-class people may have felt their spirits sink with it. The cause would have been a report from the 2020Health think-tank. It stated that a couple sharing a bottle of wine at dinner – eight million in all – had a two- to-seven-fold higher risk of cancer, stroke and liver disease than those who drank no more than the recommended alcohol units a day (roughly, one glass of red wine for women, two for men).
The logical reader may already be performing a Leslie Phillips imitation. "HELL-O!" is indeed the mildest retort possible to yet another emphasis on the ridiculous daily drinks limit (no allowance made for weight, drinking habits or other factors) that has been discredited by the very doctors who created it. It was altered from a recommended weekly limit when the Government realised that people were saving up their allowances for Saturday nights. Well, no one could possibly have been expected to think of that.
With fuel prices rising, the economy tanking and class and generational warfare more savage than at any time since the Sixties, one might have thought seeking comfort in half a bottle of wine at dinner a response of heroic restraint (wine at lunch is, apparently, fine). But, no; Julia Manning, chief executive of 2020Health, says we should be as concerned about the "suburban tippling" of the "silent majority" as about the drinkers fighting or vomiting on street corners.
I, however, am concerned about someone apparently unaware of the most famous use of that phrase – Richard Nixon's description of his supporters. As someone pointed out to Tricky Dick at the time, you can't tell what silent people are thinking. It's almost as difficult to tell what they're drinking. Manning, whose organisation advises the NHS, proposes consultations (£15 per person) that would point out individual health risks and create a plan for change. These might not have as poor a cost-benefit ratio as the £12bn computer fiasco or the selling off of nurses' accommodation, but the outlook is not promising. Are the drinkers to sign the good-behaviour contracts that have proved so effective in reforming violent schoolchildren? After the consultation, will they be monitored at intervals? How much will that cost?
Another 2020Health proposal, to fine patients who do not show up for appointments, has more justice to it – private doctors charge no-shows and NHS doctors deserve no less respect. But it also is petty and punitive. Our money would much better be spent on programmes that address the causes of disease and that look further than the end of a thermometer.
The tax contributions of the middle class are squandered on badly run programmes to aid the poor and mocked by the tax evasion permitted the wealthy. Yet we in the squeezed middle continue to be seen as a soft target, less likely to retaliate than the disorderly poor or the expensively lawyered-up rich.
Last year, my surgery invited me to visit a local chemist for a health check. I don't smoke, I drink very little, I'm not (too much) overweight and my blood pressure is low. Yet the sole response of the chemist was to lecture me for eating excessive amounts of cheese. The following week a hearty woman telephoned to say that she understood I was seeking help with restricting my cheese consumption.
Enough! You may shake your finger at me, nanny, but I am not a child, and you are neither an epicurean nor an epidemiologist. Hands off my cheese – and the wine that goes with it.
Rhoda Koenig is the author of The New Devil's Dictionary (Globe Pequot Press, November)