Weighing up your cancer risk every time you drink isn’t rational — it’s miserable

Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, has issued some seemingly autobiographical advice to the worried well of Britain. At a parliamentary committee meeting yesterday, she expanded on her claim that there is ‘no safe level’ of drinking:

‘I would like people to make their choice knowing the issues and do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think, “Do I want my glass of wine or do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?” And I take a decision each time I have a glass.’

This peculiarly gender-specific advice relates to epidemiological evidence linking alcohol consumption to breast cancer risk. According to Drink Aware, ‘women have a 9.5 per cent chance of getting breast cancer before they are 75. One study found that drinking every day — even a small amount — raises that risk to 10.6 per cent’. Put another way, the chances are roughly one in ten regardless of whether a woman chooses the path of self-indulgence or the path of self-denial. Moreover, it is a risk that needs to be put in the context of the proven health benefits of moderate drinking — particularly to the heart — but since Davies has previously dismissed these as an old wives’ tale, she fails to do so.

If Dame Sally was serious about people making an informed cost-benefit analysis every time they uncork a bottle of wine, she would acknowledge the lower mortality rates among those who drink a moderate quantity of alcohol every day — and, indeed, among many of those who drink above her miserly guidelines.

There is plenty to be said about those questionable guidelines (the latest episode of More or Less covers some of the issues very well), but let us put those to one side and examine Dame Sally’s injunction to ‘consider cancer risks with each glass’, as the BBC put it. She insists that she weighs up this trade-off every time she takes a drink. Just think about that. This is how she lives her life.

Economists are sometimes accused of believing in a cold, calculating ‘rational man’ who scrupulously weighs up the costs and benefits of every transaction. The thing about homo economicus is that he doesn’t exist. Nobody could live like that. More importantly, nobody would want to live like that. Dame Sally is proposing a medical equivalent of rational man, in which every decision involves thoughts of cancer. In the midst of life, she is truly in death.

It is difficult to see how such a life could be a happy one. I have never met Sally Davies. She could be the life of the party for all I know, but something tells me she probably isn’t. One of the great ironies of the healthy living movement is that those who wish to maximise their days on this planet seem to have the least to do with them. Mark Twain concluded his magnificent polemic against the proto-epidemiologists of the 19th century, whom he termed ‘moral statisticians’, by asking why they didn’t just ‘go off somewhere and die’ since they had no apparent use for the life they were so set on extending.

There is a distinction between understanding risk and being so preoccupied with death that you can’t pour a glass of wine without thinking about tumours. Cross that line and you enter a dark realm inhabited by neuroticism, unhappiness and the Chief Medical Officer. Before long, your only pleasures in life will be reminding other people of their impending death and punishing them for living in a manner that displeases you.

The lowering of the alcohol guidelines is merely the opening salvo in a renewed war on drinkers. Dame Sally is an influential, well connected and wealthy individual. She is bound to succeed on some level, but whatever she throws at us in the years ahead, always remember that if you are able to crack open a bottle of booze without dwelling on thoughts of cancer, you have already beaten her at the game of life.

Christopher Snowdon will be speaking at the Spectator’s annual health debate at IET London, Savoy Place, on Tuesday February 9


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  • James Pickett

    If she really thinks like that, she must be pretty keen on the stuff! (it’s giving me cancer, but .. I .. just .. can’t .. stop). Of course, I doubt that she really does, which somehow makes it even worse.

    Personally, I prefer to think it’s doing my heart good…

  • Steve

    She said in front of the committee that the guidelines were to “provide a platform for future public health campaigning.”

    Enough said about her motivation.

  • Chris Oakley

    What I don’t understand is why anyone believes that being a medic qualifies this miserable intellectually myopic woman to talk about statistically complex risk assessment. She is obviously clueless and her position utterly pointless.. I find her stupidity actually more offensive than her self righteous finger wagging. I do resent paying for both.

    • Tarek

      I’m a medic and teetotaler and I have to agree with u Chris

  • Vinny Gracchus

    it’s hard to assess what she really believes. After all, she is a prohibitionist. Of course in her view all the things she disapproves of must cause cancer and have no benefit. Sad that cancer occurs in both never-smokers and teetotalers too.

    • James Pickett

      She’s either terminally miserable or a bloody liar.

      • jude

        She’s both.

  • Zarniwoop

    Doesn’t stop her swilling back a glass of Chablis though does it.

    The woman has some serious issues if that’s how she thinks

  • gray cooper

    The present prohibitionist political model doesn’t work because attempting to make the electorate live a long miserable life for unworthy politicians who waste tax and offend with their labelling. They must be broken.

  • Peter

    Driving a car is quite dangerous. She must soil herself. I certainly hope so.

  • Peter Watson

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Look at the statistics on income, alcohol consumption and life expectancy. The more people earn the more they drink and the longer they live. Nuff said.

  • Of course, it’s a myth that cost benefit analysis is a rational process. Costs and benefits can be ignored, overemphasized and accentuated until they satisfy the agenda of the individual or organisation in question.

  • trespasserswill

    Is this the same Dame Shilly Shally who so mismanaged the response to Ebola that she imported the contagion into the UK?

  • Lollylulubes

    The raison d’être of people like Davies is to drum up cash and research money from the government, via us taxpayers, for whatever schemes they can think up and smoking, booze and food is easy pickings. Having got the cash, they know they’ll be ignored by the majority, so then they need to do it again and again and again. It’s a viscious and very expensive circle. Based on her track record of lies, the woman is a waste of space and money!