Lori Anderson: Time to change our drinking culture

We learned this week courtesy of the Tulleken twins was that the government's recommended weekly alcohol limit may be too high.  Picture: Donald MacLeod
We learned this week courtesy of the Tulleken twins was that the government's recommended weekly alcohol limit may be too high. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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Twin experiment suggests we will have to find new pastime to curb our consumption of alcohol, writes Lori Anderson

Scotland’s reputation for liquid hospitality has long preceded itself; alongside the red and marbled hue of our natural larder, Scots have always enjoyed access to the myriad libations of an inventive cocktail bar. The stone dressers at the homes of Skara Brae in Orkney would have contained clay jugs of ale made with bitter herbs. As far back as 325BC Pytheas, the ancient Greek, paid tribute to the Caledonians’ skill at fermenting a potent brew. Uisge beatha, the water of life, may now constitute our national drink but for a time that distinction belonged to blaand, introduced to us by the Vikings and made from fermented whey.

We still buy 17 per cent more booze than people in England and Wales

This week Horizon, the science series on BBC2, sought to answer a question of particular pertinence to Scots: Is binge drinking really that bad? Usually when the media poses a question, such as “Are crop circles the work of aliens?”, the answer is unsurprisingly No, but the TV investigation by identical twin doctors Xand and Chris van Tulleken came with its own surprising chaser. The answer to the question was always going to be Yes, but what made me sit up a little straighter was their revelation at just how unhealthy drinking in moderation appeared to be.

In a novel experiment, filmed over one month, both brothers consumed the maximum weekly allowance of alcohol for a man as recommended by the Department of Health, which consisted of 21 units: the equivalent of ten and a half pints or two bottles of wine or 21 shots of vodka. While Chris eked it out over seven nights, Xand demolished his ration in a single evening or day. Among the findings of the monitored experiment was that although he finished his last drink at 11pm, his blood alcohol level peaked at 1:30am when he was asleep and most vulnerable.

The programme referenced a Scottish study that revealed 20 per cent more people die on a Monday than any other day of the week, which scientists believed was linked to heavy drinking over the weekend. At the end of the experiment, Xand’s liver was found to be 25 per cent stiffer than when he started, however Chris, who had mildly sipped his way through the week, also had almost exactly the same amount of liver damage. The medical team at the Royal Free Hospital in London were so surprised at the results that it has now embarked on a more detailed study, on the grounds that the current maximum allowance recommended by the Department of Health may be too high.

Kingsley Amis would not have wished to share the bar at the Garrick Club with Drs Xand and Chris van Tulleken. The author of the Old Devils and father of Martin wrote a witty ode to Bacchus On Drink in which he explained: “Alcohol science is full of crap. It will tell you, for instance, that drink does not really warm you up, it only makes you feel warm – oh, I see; and it will go on about alcohol being not a stimulant but a depressant, which turns out to mean that it depresses qualities like shyness and self-criticism, and so makes you behave as if you had been stimulated – thanks.” (Although how much heed should be paid to a man whose cocktail creations include a Bloody Mary mixed with tomato ketchup instead of tabasco, or a whisky with fried eggs?)

Scotland has long had a difficult, dependent relationship with alcohol, to which we turn in good times and bad, and this TV programme only served to make it more fraught. We are currently 80 per cent more likely to die an alcohol-related death than our neighbours in England and Wales, with the bottle claiming roughly 20 people each week in Scotland. In the course of the same seven days, 700 people will be admitted to hospital due to excessive drinking and the most likely culprit to stagger through the doors of the emergency room, or be carried in, are those of us born in the 1960s.

There are, however, a few glimmering rays of hope breaking through the dark storm of our national hangover. Since 2009 the amount of alcohol the nation consumes has dropped by the equivalent of 38 million pints of beer or three million bottles of whisky, though we still buy 17 per cent more booze than people in England and Wales. A report published last December by NHS Scotland said that our new-found abstinence was more likely the result of a lack of money caused by the current economic crisis as well as the scrapping of “multi-buy” deals in supermarkets. In the past ten years, alcohol deaths have dropped by 35 per cent but still remain 1.4 times higher than in 1981.

What we learned this week courtesy of the Tulleken twins was that the government’s recommended weekly alcohol limit may be too high and that in the future, it could be drastically scaled back. The problem is that many of us already comfortably exceed what is currently considered safe. The idea that it might not be so safe as Scots previously believed will mean they will have to reduce their drinking further. In the future, the dilemma will be whether we prefer to save up our more meagre weekly ration of units for a binge or eke it out, seeking a brief warm glow on a nightly basis. Or will we simply continue to do whatever we please, paying little heed to the government, which, like a weary barman faced with a belligerent drunk, would dearly like to call time and cut us off? One thing is certain – Scotland’s obsession with alcohol is certain to spin on. There is something to be said for drunkenness, and it was said by Charles Baudelaire: “One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters… But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.” The latter options would appear to be a good deal safer, as no-one has been admitted to casualty after too many sonnets.