Irish people are drinking 700 times the amount of alcohol that we should be drinking. Seven. Hundred. Times.

That was the gist of this piece on theJournal.ie yesterday, which hung on the comments of a speaker at a conference for the European Week Against Cancer in the Aviva Stadium. Professor Peter Anderson of Newcastle University gave some top-notch headline fodder:

IRISH PEOPLE ARE are at a high risk of cancer as a result of the amount we drink – with the most recent figures available showing the average drinker aged over 15 consumes over 11 litres of pure alcohol every year.

That’s 700 times the recommended exposure level set by the EU Food Safety Authority to prevent cancer from food and drinks, according to a substance use expert in Dublin for a conference to mark European Week Against Cancer.

A bit of  link-following brings us from Professor Anderson’s staff page to the homepage of the Amphora project, where we read that it’s not just us.

EU drinkers consume more than 600 times the exposure level set by the European Food Standards Authority for genotoxic carcinogens, of which ethanol is one.

Terrifying eh? Well, it is until the critical thinkers turn up. The story cites the “most recent figures available,” telling us the average Irish adult drinks 11 litres of pure alcohol annually (the alcohol industry’s latest report says 11.6L, but close enough). As previously noted, Irish drinkers can do long division quite well, and the Journal’s commenters quickly spotted that  11,000ml/700 equals a smidgin under 16ml of alcohol. Professor Anderson’s remarks suggest limiting alcohol consumption to less than a pint of beer a year, presumably to be enjoyed with food and in moderation on Christmas day.

This, I think we can agree, is preposterous. And fret not, even the alcohol charities think so. According to Alcohol Action Ireland, we drink 2.4 litres more than we should every year:

If every adult aged 15+ in Ireland drank to the maximum low-risk weekly limit every week, average consumption for the year would be 9.2 litres

That’s about 26%, an order of magnitude less than the “700 times” statement.

Without providing some sort of context for the carcinogenic content of our tipples, how can we be expected to make an informed decision on the risks? How does alcohol consumption stack up against say, eating seafood or huffing asbestos? Journalists have a responsibility to bring clarity on these matters to the public and make sense of the statements of scientists who may misleading in the way they communicate their findings. Is it objective to parrot their statements? As John Pilger put it:

The great American journalist T. D. Allman once defined ‘genuinely objective journalism’ as that which ‘not only gets the facts right, it gets the meaning of events right. Objective journalism is compelling not only today. It stands the test of time. It is validated not only by “reliable sources” but by the unfolding of history. It is reporting that which not only seems right the day it is published. It is journalism that ten, twenty, fifty years after the fact still holds up a true and intelligent mirror to events.’

I’m reluctant to accuse the public health policy experts of the Amphora project of scaremongering to get stricter rules on alcohol adverts. For starters, there are dozens of them, and they probably all have doctorates. It’s easier, I think, to point out that dramatic, context-free statements telling me that I’m glugging cancer chemicals like a madman is just going to alienate the average barfly. Even though there are some very good reasons to encourage sensible drinking and regulate the activities of drinks companies, this is the sort of thing that undermines them.

Using the recommended threshold for genotoxic carcinogens as a guide for alcohol regulation is abstract to the point of irrelevance when even the definition of a ‘binge’ is scoffed at, quaffed, and surpassed after two pints of beer.



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