Imagine being prescribed a drug that had the following side effects: slurred speech, drowsiness, vomiting, headaches, memory loss, distorted vision, unconsciousness and blackouts. Now imagine there were other, long-term, health risks associated with the drug: cancer of the mouth, throat and breast; stroke, heart disease, brain damage, liver disease, pancreatitis, depression and infertility.
It doesn’t sound great, does it? If you read those side effects on the back of a pill packet, you’d definitely think twice about whether you really needed the medicine.
Alcohol can cause all the side effects listed above. Everyone knows this, deep down. Yet drinkers have a spectacular ability to NOT think about these things. When I was boozing, I rarely stopped to think about the inevitable hangover, never mind anything else.
What fascinates me is that in every other area of life, we are super-aware, health-conscious, careful individuals. We go to the gym. We run. We do yoga. We shun processed foods, we avoid refined sugars. We take vitamins. We buy organic food. We read labels and count calories and cook from scratch. We drink green smoothies. We worry about the chemicals in our beauty products and the pollution in the air. We slather on sunscreen, guzzle filtered water and pay a fortune for ‘super foods’.
Most of the time we’re very picky about what we put in our bodies. And yet we ‘relax’ by downing a toxic, liquid poison that makes us feel ill and remorseful the next day. It doesn’t make sense.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Why is there this disconnect? It seems that somewhere along the way, society has lost sight of what alcohol really is. Booze has become so normalised, we’ve forgotten that it’s an addictive, dangerous drug. Alcohol is legal, socially acceptable and oh-so cool. It’s also everywhere. My local supermarket stacks bottles of pretty pink rose next to the milk and bread.
Those beautifully packaged bottles have virtually no information on them. Unlike cigarette packets, there are no compulsory health warnings, just some information about the unit content. Manufacturers don’t have to display the calorie content. This is a shame, as many of us understand calories better than units.
Manufacturers are not even obliged to tell you what’s in your drink. There’s this idea that wine is ‘natural’. And if it’s just fermented grape juice, it can’t be that bad, right? The reality is that most wines contain staggering amounts of chemical additives and other nasties.
The other big problem is the belief that some alcohol might be good for us, especially red wine. I love reading health and fitness magazines, but it drives me crazy how often they reiterate this myth. The idea that a glass of red wine protects the heart has been dismissed by England’s Chief Medical Officer as an “old wives’ tale”. Even if it were true, it would only apply to very, very small amounts of alcohol.
I don’t often write posts like this one, because I think it’s better to be positive than negative about these things. But I really do think that culturally, we need to change the way we view alcohol. Just look at how our attitudes to smoking have changed over the years and the effect that’s had on smoking rates.
There are three words that sum up our contradictory and confusing approach to alcohol: ‘Please drink responsibly.’
This short message appears on most alcohol labels and I hate it, for several reasons. First, it implies that alcohol is an unproblematic part of everyday life. Second, it suggests there IS such a thing as responsible drinking (I’m not sure that’s true). And finally, it implies it should be possible to control one’s intake of a mind-altering drug; that there are just a select few who are unable to be ‘responsible’ about their drug intake.
Alcohol is a highly addictive, toxic substance that causes great harm – why pretend it’s anything else?
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