Comment

Calorie labels on alcohol are long overdue – but lay off pregnant women

Authorities have picked the wrong target in their campaign to convey an inconvenient truth: that alcohol is bad for our bodies

I have never taken drugs and have never been remotely tempted. By drugs I mean powders and pills, or things you smoke that are more severe than marijuana. This makes me an outlier, apparently, and I am frequently on the receiving end of lectures from mushroom munchers, acid droppers, MDMA-swallowers and cocaine snorters about how wonderful drugs can be in the right circumstances – some have assured me a single trip changed their life forever, in a good way, doing in one night what years of therapy could not do.

I get impatient at this point, if not downright scathing, and then they unleash their big guns: do I drink alcohol? Since the answer is yes, then I am frequently imbibing a drug far more harmful to the brain, body and society than they are.

I will never agree to the alcohol equals drugs line, but the truth is they have a point. Whether we like it or not, alcohol is bad for you. It gives you cancer (there are especially strong links with breast cancer), speeds cognitive decline, strains the liver and makes you fat.

All of which means the new, sneered-at proposals of The Commission on Alcohol Harm, which call for calorie labels on booze, just like on food, seem fair enough. Why should drink be exempt from the facts of reality, allowed to waft in a merry fantasyland where health risks, calories and sugar don’t exist? In a report released last week, the Commission pointed out that people who drink get nearly 10 per cent of their daily calorie intake from alcohol.  

This follows a Royal College of Psychiatrists report which found that the number of people drinking alcohol at higher risk levels in England doubled to 8.4 million in June from 4.8 million in February; a clear effect of lockdown.

Nobody wants to think about the chemical realities of booze - least of all such dowdy, killjoy facts as its calorie content. For drinking is stitched into all aspects of life associated with pleasure, release, and even pain. The diaries of ex-minister Hugo Swire’s wife, Sasha, include detailed accounts of heavy drinking among inner Tory circles. Recalling the night of the Brexit vote in 2016, for example, Swire tells of the Camerons’ response to the results: ‘[David] makes a lethal negroni before we progress to endless bottles of wine, whisky and brandy.’ At Cameron’s resignation, we learn that ‘Sam is in tears …she didn’t think she could go out there without drinking a large negroni.’ Negronis all round; ‘endless’ bottles of wine, whisky and brandy; Boris apparently steaming after gallons of red. All perfectly normal.

Except it’s not because, as my drug-taking friends point out, alcohol is a drug. In the quantities described by Swire, it can kill, especially if someone gets behind the wheel.

If we have a blasé, don’t-want-to-know attitude to booze - especially where middle and upper class coiffing is concerned - then the opposite seems to be true when it comes to pregnant women.

Last week the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) issued proposals to have women’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy recorded on their child’s medical records. Every unit consumed - including any drink a mother consumed before she knew she was pregnant - would be documented under the plans.

This urge to micromanage pregnant women and to treat them like children themselves rightfully sparked ire, with charities immediately pointing out such a guideline could be in breach of data protection regulations. As Clare Murphy, of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said: ‘Women do not lose their right to medical confidentiality simply because they are pregnant.’

Everyone knows getting pregnancy is an imperfect science - some women conceive immediately, others are taken by surprise months in, and accidents can happen no matter how careful you’re being. Should women be banned from having a glass of wine every time they have sex?

Pregnant women seem an odd group to target with these suggestions of state-sponsored spying, especially when the evidence on the thresholds of drinking that can harm an unborn child is flimsy. ‘There [is] no compelling research showing harm at lower levels of consumption’, says Murphy.

Indeed the crux of the unpleasantness is the assumption that women don’t know what they’re doing - when a forthcoming study of 7,000 women, funded by the Wellcome Trust, found that women are well aware of the dangers of drinking during pregnancy. “It’s a source of real frustration for me that … studies try to prove that somehow women are living in ignorance about this,’ says Murphy.

It’s time to overhaul our hazy, hypocritical relationship to alcohol, but pregnant women should not be the starting point: the majority avoid alcohol altogether, and those who do drink too much will be harmed, not helped, if we quiz them like naughty schoolgirls.

Instead, we all need to face up to what drinking does to our health - including our waistlines - and stop pretending those G&Ts and lagers in the sunshine are only fun and therefore ‘don’t count’.  

If crisp packets tell you the grisly truth, then so should pints and glasses of prosecco.