Dry January: The carrots and sticks of healthy drinking

Douglas Anderson talks Dry January, drinking habits and life expectancy in France.

As we return to work after the holidays, an estimated 3 million party-loving Britons will have pledged to abstain from alcohol in January. Perhaps you’re one of them?

Although I have not done it myself, I can see the attraction. January is a cold, dark month, bank accounts are depleted, and the end of the party season might be enough to drive you to drink! It’s good to have the support of like-minded friends to turn over a new leaf. The change of routine may nudge some into healthier habits, reducing the risk of addiction setting in. What’s not to like?   

Non, merci

Well… whilst I was in France celebrating the start of a new decade, I learned that the French health ministry had declined to support the creation of a “Janvier Sec”, apparently after the intervention of President Macron. Government ministers were invited to join the campaign personally, but it seems to have been judged too toxic. The cocktail of long-term health protection and short-term politics sometimes does not mix. With France’s public sector workers – particularly rail workers – striking against raising pension ages, Macron could do without picking another fight with the nation’s winemakers. You can read about the story here

As you may have picked up, I’m a bit of a Francophile. I’ve been trying to improve my French, in part motivated by the belief that second languages help to protect our brains against dementia. If you fancy doubling up your New Year health kick, you can do Dry January in French here https://dryjanuary.fr/ .  (Whilst the strikes continue, the French Dry January campaign is going ahead, albeit without government support).

Mixing work and pleasure led me to studying various excellent French public health publications. So, what does the French data tell us?

In France, it’s a male problem

It is estimated that 40,000 premature French deaths a year are alcohol-related. That’s around 7% of all deaths. In France, the thirst for alcohol appears to be particularly biased towards men. Three-quarters of the premature alcohol-related deaths relate to men. Moreover, the stats on drinking habits show that French men drink much more heavily than women. The 3 to 1 men-to-women ratio seen in the deaths is mirrored in the proportion of men and women who admit to being daily drinkers of alcohol (i.e. not taking the advice to stay dry for a couple of days a week). My most recent figures (for 2014) classified 15% of men and only 5% of women as daily drinkers. In fairness to Macron, habits seem to have become a lot healthier over his lifetime: if we look back to just 1992, the proportion of French people who were daily drinkers then was 36% for men and 12% for women: more than twice the current rate, but again with a 3:1 bias to men.         

The gender gap in lifestyles leads to a wide longevity gap

So, given that historical pattern of regular drinking particularly amongst men, what do we see in the life expectancy figures of the French? Whilst French women are the second longest lived in the world (behind the world-leading Japanese), French men are much further down the league table, lagging their women by six years. Not only is male average dragged down by drinking habits, but French smoking habits are similarly polarised by gender. In the 1950s, around 70% of men, but less than 20% of women, smoked.   

The latest figures suggest around 30% of French men smoke and 20% of French women. Remember that today’s life expectancy figures reflect past behaviours. It looks like the historical drinking and smoking habits of French men are dragging down the national average, but we should see a closing of the gender gap in years to come (as the second graph in this article shows, it has already come down from over eight years to under six).

What about France’s “Auld Alliance” partner?

The statistics of my native Scotland make for grim reading too. Scotland’s similarly high rate of alcohol-related deaths to France is double that of its southerly neighbour, England. Unlike the French, the Scottish government has the appetite to take bolder steps, legislating to impose a minimum price for alcohol to raise the price of the cheapest alcohol favoured by addicts. This law appears to be bolder in its scope than existing ones like in Canada. Whilst it was created in 2012, with the minimum price set at 50p a unit, roughly 65 US cents, it only came into effect in May 2018 after, ultimately unsuccessful, legal challenges brought by Scottish whisky producers. You can read about the economic theory of alcohol pricing here.

Figures are now starting to emerge for how Scottish drinking habits have changed since the minimum price was introduced. Overall alcohol consumption fell slightly in 2018. The impact of this policy in targeting the hardest drinkers on the lowest incomes is being studied by several research projects. Watch this space.

The last drop

Finally, to lighten your spirits, I’m looking forward to toasting, in moderation, the memory of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, with a drop of the “amber bead” (whisky) on 25th January. Burns was a complex character: he certainly loved a drink and wrote about Scotland’s 18th century drinking culture in many of his works. He also earned a living as an exciseman, collecting taxes on booze. Burns also notched up some impressive demographic statistics, whilst he was only on the planet for 37 years, he fathered 12 children by at least four different mothers. Whilst his womanising is best left in the past, his support of progressive politics would, I imagine, have led him to supporting minimum alcohol pricing. So, let’s leave the last word to Burns, with the opening lines to “Scotch Drink”...  

“Let other poets raise a fracas

Bout vines and wines, and drunken Bacchus, 

And crabbit names and stories wrack us,    

And grate our lug: 

I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us,    

In glass or jug."

You can read the rest of it here – please see the end for translation of Scottish words. 

 Lang may yer lums reek.


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