Colin Valentine: Don't demonise alcohol or those who drink it

AND WE should raise a glass to salute the social benefits of a good local pub, writes Colin Valentine

UK Chief Medical Officers advise that men and women in the UK should drink no more than 14 units a week. Picture: Getty Images

I would like to start by saying something that some people might see as controversial – I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t know anyone who does. In fact, if you put a glass of alcohol down in front of me, even assuming I knew what it was, I wouldn’t drink it. As it transpires, I drink real ale and malt whisky, both of which happen to contain alcohol, because I enjoy the taste of both. I have no experience of drinking alcohol, and have no wish to – as I’m sure it doesn’t taste very pleasant. However, for consistency, I use the generic term alcohol throughout this article.

Earlier this year, two conflicting reports came out on the subjects of consuming alcohol – one from the United Kingdom’s Chief Medical Officers and one from an Oxford University professor, Robin Dunbar. The former’s headline was that men and women in the UK should drink no more than 14 units – aboutseven pints – a week. The latter’s headline was that people who have a pub that they call their local are not only significantly happier than those who don’t, but also more satisfied with life and have more friends.

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To put 14 units a week into some kind of perspective, in the United States, France, Italy and Spain, the alcohol guidelines are 24.5, 28, 31.5 and 35 units, respectively. What exactly is it that the UK’s CMOs know that their equivalents in these four countries do not?

Spain, with its Mediterranean diet, has one of the lowest instances of heart disease and cancer in the developed world, and yet their CMO considers it safe to consume almost three times as many units of alcohol a week as it is in the UK.

Anti-alcohol campaigners make no distinction between different drinks – real ale and malt whisky are in the same bracket as industrial strength hooch sold at knockdown prices in supermarkets. The main alcohol-related issues that people in this country have – not that this country has – is down to the latter not the former.

There are risks in almost everything we do on a daily basis – I am an avid hill walker and Munro bagger and I know that there are risks involved in going for a day out in the hills. Yet I still do it and that is because I weigh up the risks, based on the facts and have my guide book, map and compass with me.

Give us the full facts and we, as adults, can analyse them and make a decision for ourselves.

Professor Dunbar’s study found that people who have a local or who patronise community type pubs have more close friends on whom they can call for support and that they are happier than those who do not. He also found that a limited alcohol intake improves wellbeing and some (but not all) social skills, just as it has been shown to improve other cognitive abilities and health – although it must be stressed that these abilities decline as alcohol intake increases beyond a moderate level. The professor states that “friendship and community are probably the two most important factors influencing our wellbeing”. The research also found that small community pubs are far more likely to be beer-led in terms of sales rather than wine- and spirit-led. The most interesting finding of all in this research, however, is that people drinking in community pubs typically consume less alcohol than those in large city centre pubs.

Being active is vital to your wellbeing and, as you get older, especially if you live on your own, interacting with other people stimulates your mind. The report doesn’t mean saying “excuse me” in the bus queue and “how much is that?” at the checkout, it means sitting down and having a real conversation – the original social network.

If you go the pub, it is very easy to have a conversation with fellow customers – I have lost count of the number of times I have fallen into a conversation in a pub with someone I had never met before and often haven’t met since. Everything in life carries with it some degree of risk – travelling to work every day by car can be risky, as can be going on holiday abroad. Before we get carried away with the scaremongering tactics of the anti-alcohol lobby, let’s take a step back and consider the story health campaigners aren’t telling us – the social and personal benefits of having a strong social network that can be fostered at the pub. Pubs offer a supervised environment in which to enjoy a pint with friends, and I for one say cheers to that!

• Colin Valentine is National chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra),