Lock up your pies – here comes Sir Liam Donaldson

Another genuinely baffling piece, here from Keith Waterhouse:

“The good news is that Gordon has turned his stubbly thumbs down on a proposal by his chief medical adviser, Sir Liam Donaldson, to set a stiff new minimum price on alcohol.

Apparently, the alternative is that we are turning ourselves into a nation of drunks with sots on every street corner reeling about and yelling: ‘Hey, Jimmy, is it me you’re looking at?'”

Now, the Chief Medical Officer’s report is always a good read, as you would expect from the nation’s appointed medical expert. Reports going back to 1996 can be found here, with the current one being here (the bit relevant to Keith Waterhouse’s article starting on page 17 ). The case against ‘passive drinking’ is well put – Dr Donaldson notes the strong negative relationship between the cost of alcohol and its consumption, the differential impact of price increases on the consumption of light and heavy drinkers, the cost to society of drinking and a recent study by Sheffield University researchers into the likely effects of price changes. The conclusion is one that seems obvious – imposing an artificial floor on prices will have a large effect on those drinking cheap alcohol without adversely affecting moderate drinkers of pricey stuff. To take an example from Dr Donaldson’s report, the price of wine would rise to a minimum of around £4.50 a bottle, while a large bottle of cider would rise to £5.50. Readers of Waterhouse’s column, refined souls that they are, are unlikely to lose much on the deal. Meanwhile, ‘Binge Britain’ (eg.) is forced to behave a little more responsibly, not by having their rights or freedom’s in any way eroded, but through the regulation of the market (which we’re generally all for). Indeed, the position is identical in structure to Melanie Phillip’s planned re-regulation of drinking times, in as far as it hopes to give drinker’s less opportunity to indulge without taking their right to drink if they choose away from them, but actually with slightly less inconvenience to your average responsible drinker.

So what’s not to like? Well, this:

“‘Sir Liam Donaldson was self-satisfied to the point of complacency. ‘Tobacco puts nails in the coffins of 120,000 people a year in this country. Acting on second-hand smoke would put a further nail in that coffin.’

I have noticed that the more graphic the statistics, the less reliable they are likely to be. The National Guesswork Authority has no record of 120,000 coffin nails a year. Like all projected figures, they are better at guessing the future than recalling the past.”

Presumably, the point here is that we can’t trust Sir Liam this time when he says that acting on drink would be helpful because he made up his figures on smoking-related deaths. I can put Keith’s mind at rest here, the figure of 120,ooo deaths comes from an independent report from 1998, Sir Kenneth Calman was CMO at the time. Second-hand smoke is happily acknowledged by no less a Mail-friendly source than Cancer Research UK as a bone fide carcinogen. No ‘National Guesswork Authority’ is necessary – we know something causes harm, we know that harm causes deaths, we can reason that removing the something will avoid the harm and save lives.

This radical thinking seems to have passed Waterhouse by – he gives no consideration to the harm alcohol causes, just makes jibes at the Cheif Medical Officer:

“In case you imagine these were simply the ravings of a health fanatic – which, of course, they are – perhaps I should remind you that on such issues Sir Liam has form.”

Of course Sir Liam has form. He’s the guardian of the nation’s health. It’s his job. That’s why he stopped Keith from smoking in enclosed public spaces – it was harming people’s health. It’s why he’s seeking to find a way of stopping Britain from binging, as the Mail so often has it – that is also harming people’s health. You might disagree with his method, but how Keith manages to disagee with the motivation is beyond me.