Hang around an inner-city emergency department on a Friday night and you will see the damage binge drinking can cause. Bloody knuckles, broken noses, black eyes and worse — fractured limbs and fractured lives.
The toll that binge drinking takes on our society is well known, but perhaps less obvious is the impact of the more socially acceptable twin; steady, regular drinking.
A leading alcohol researcher has an expression he uses to describe the different attitudes to drinking from the more laid-back regular daily intake favoured by southern Europeans, to the more hard-core bingeing undertaken by northern Europeans: the French kill their livers and the Finns kill their lovers.
“I’ve been in France early in morning and people, generally men, order a coffee and have a nip of brandy or whisky, and they top up regularly during the day,” said Dr Alex Wodak, Emeritus Consultant at the Alcohol and Drug Service in Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital.
“They’re never intoxicated but there’s a formidable physical toll from all of that.
“In the north of Europe, that kind of drinking style is very uncommon and what’s much more common is for people to have two-thirds of a bottle of spirits once a week and they set fire to a soccer stadium or slash train seats or belt their wife up or someone in the street they don’t like the look of.”
1. The myth of beneficial drinking.
Most of us are well aware of the risks posed by binge drinking, but there is still some confusion about the health impact of having just one or two alcoholic drinks per day.
The notion that moderate alcohol consumption is benign, even beneficial, has been around for decades and was first floated by the godfather of evidence-based medicine, the late, Archie Cochrane.
In a 1979 study, Cochrane and colleagues tried to work out what exactly was responsible for the differing rates of death from heart disease across the world.
Their analysis suggested a link between increasing alcohol consumption — specifically of wine — and decreasing rates of heart disease.
2. The health benefits of moderate drinking.
For those who enjoy a drink or two, the idea low-level drinking might be good for your health is very appealing. But is that really the case?
This finding was bolstered by other studies that all pointed to a ‘sweet spot’ for alcohol consumption where the benefits outweighed the harms.
Then researchers decided to take a closer look at all the evidence and realised the method of many of these observational studies was fatally flawed.
The assumption underpinning many studies suggesting a health benefit from moderate alcohol consumption was that non-drinkers were a homogenous, health-conscious group of people who had always shunned alcohol.
In fact this population includes a significant number of people who have had to stop drinking for health or addiction reasons.