Books: Dispiriting bias on booze - Alcohol brings harmless pleasure to millions, says Winston Fletcher, lamenting a killjoy and highly skewed new study of our drinking habits

Books: Dispiriting bias on booze - Alcohol brings harmless pleasure to millions, says Winston Fletcher, lamenting a killjoy and highly skewed new study of our drinking habits - Alcohol: The ambiguous molecule

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Alcohol: The ambiguous molecule

by Griffith Edwards

Penguin pounds 7.99

If this book were an advertisement, its author would doubtless want it banned. It claims to be an objective analysis of the pros and cons of alcohol, and its very first sentence declares unequivocally: 'This book is neither for nor against alcohol'. But that is not entirely truthful.

Alcohol - The Ambiguous Molecule is a thinly veiled anti-alcohol polemic - a temperance wolf dressed up in a temperate sheep's clothing.

Despite its self-proclaimed neutrality, six of the 14 chapters deal with alcoholism, a relatively uncommon ailment. Dr Alex Paton, one of Britain's leading experts on alcohol consumption, estimates that fewer than 1% of adults are alcohol dependent, and my guess is that, like most doctors, he is overestimating. Another chapter is called 'A Short History of Drunkenness', another 'The Drinker's Dilemma', and another insistently questions the widely accepted medical view that alcohol in moderate quantities can improve health and longevity.

On the other hand, there is not a single chapter devoted to the pleasures, the personal and social benefits, and the exquisite tastes of different drinks. The closest the author, Griffith Edwards, gets to achieving this kind of balance comes towards the end, where he describes an imaginary couple who have 'enjoyed two glasses of wine with their meal'. (Hardly bonzer boozers then.) He writes:-

'Drink makes these people feel good and they know from experience that in safe surroundings a few drinks more will make them feel better still.

That kind of intoxication can for a little while open for them a magic territory of elation, talkativeness, laughter, loosened mental associations and emotional intimacy.' Then - in case you may be thinking the drinkers are having some fun - he rapidly lands a flurry of 'impartial' counter-punches:-

'As for short-term losses, these are likely to be no worse than a bit of headache or sickness in the morning, regrets or recriminations over something stupid said, a wine glass knocked to the floor.' (They've only had two glasses of wine, dammit - they're not exactly pissed out of their skulls.)

Intoxicated with his own morbidity, Edwards proceeds to detail the possible health risks, accident risks and nasty social consequences of their drinking.

A few pages later he briefly returns to his imbibing couple to point out that if the woman is over 30, her two drinks will already have increased her risk of cancer, and if the man is called out on an emergency his driving may be impaired. What a sad life the author must lead.

All polemicists tailor statistics to fit their case and Edwards is no exception. Lies, damn lies and so on. Like a bar-room bore, he bangs on about alcohol causing cirrhosis of the liver - and it does. But he neglects to mention that alcohol-related cirrhosis probably accounts for fewer than 1,000 deaths in Britain each year. He inveighs against drunken driving without mentioning that drink is now involved in fewer than 600 road deaths annually. He states, without any substantiation, that some 20,000 Britons die each year as a result of drinking, whereas more reasonable estimates put the figure at around 5,000.

But the really dispiriting thing about the book is that it is a huge missed opportunity. Griffith Edwards unquestionably has barrels of knowledge about alcohol. His historical data is both erudite and fascinating. But he does not understand - or even try to understand - the very real joy alcohol brings, with few if any disadvantages, to 99% or so of those who quaff it. The overwhelming majority of them are moderate drinkers. They love it, and it's probably good for them.

Alcohol: The Ambiguous Molecule is like a book on sex that goes on about Aids, herpes and unwanted pregnancies without bothering to mention that for most people bonking is one of life's greatest pleasures. But then for Griffith Edwards, drinking obviously isn't. His loss.

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