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Rose Prince: The experts would say I'm a binge drinker ... but give me a bit of credit


By all current assessment, that makes me a raging social alcoholic and groups me with the girl in the purple miniskirt and white court shoes, splayed face down on the pavement outside a pub in the city centre on a Friday night. But I credit myself with a more sophisticated approach to my drinking, something akin to Madame Bollinger’s to champagne: "I drink champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad," she said "Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty."

Quite so, except I tend to drink water when thirsty and I am extremely fussy about the quality of wine that I drink. If it is disgusting, I will not take more than a couple of sips. I am a middle-class, middle-aged social drinker with taste – and that, I believe, is the saving grace when it comes to my alcohol intake. Unfortunately, the British National Health Service does not agree.

For the purposes of research, I visited the NHS Choices website, which provides a link to an online gadget that calculates whether you drink too much. “How often do you have 6 or more units [three glasses of wine] of alcohol on one occasion,” it asks. I tick “Weekly”.

“How often during the last year have you found that you were not able to stop drinking once you have started?” I tick “Weekly,” wanting to add, “because it was so delicious.”

“How often have you needed an alcoholic drink in the morning to get yourself going?” “I’m not that bad,” I mutter in protest, ticking “Never”.

Then a window pops up on screen saying it is ''concerned’’ about my overall drinking habits. It does not advise Alcoholics Anonymous, but says to stop friends topping me up, and to join in activities that do not involve drinking.

I bristle. This makes me sound as if I drink all day every day, when the truth is that I am amazed I can fit in the units I do consume, so busy am I not drinking. If I have to write or do other work the next day, I may only drink a glass, but quite often nothing at all. I cannot, like some legendary alcohol-fuelled authors, produce decent prose on a bottle or two of wine.

Included in non-drinking time are household and family chores, shopping trips, dog-walking and an occasional run in the park – and sleeping, of course. Ideally, I prefer not to drink between Sunday night and Friday afternoon. I do drink more at weekends. This puts me back in the purple miniskirt as a “binge drinker”, hints my NHS cyber-confidant. “But you do not understand,” I plead with the screen. “I drink nicely, not disgustingly.”

I am not being flippant, nor am I unaware of the tragic consequences of drinking heavily – and addiction. Some 25 years ago, a close relative died of a stroke, the result of liver disease, when he was only 53. He had been told to stop drinking, and could not. Afterwards I became curious about the psychological side of alcoholism, attending AA family group meetings and consulting experts. Learning at what point a drinker becomes an alcoholic, I found the differential being when your drinking is an obvious cause of harm to yourself and others.

I have a stronger head than many. I do not slur my words or stagger when drunk. I may talk louder and laugh easier, but I don’t start singing ballads or get angry. I have noticed, however, that now I am older my head is less clear the next day, which is why I do not drink when full concentration is needed. After drinking too much, I may wake with a painful headache and feel spaced out and shivery until late afternoon. Wine also makes me fat.

So I am, in every sense, a controlled drinker, adapting my intake of alcohol and its consequences to the demands of my life. But I do still worry about my liking for it. A recent week long trip to a “dry” state in the Middle East filled me with enough foreboding to ask for several refills on the plane. Meze without wine, I thought gloomily. I did not feel panicky about it but very petulant.

Oh dear. On paper this does not look good. Avid wine drinkers may do better not to try and explain their passion and habits, when medical advice is so black and white. The health authorities do not discriminate over social-economic status, genetics or the choice of “poison” – organic, biodynamic wine or Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Yet, my conclusion is that there is only one person who knows if you are overdoing it: yourself. And while I still have a choice in the matter of whether or not to pour myself a drink, I do not think I drink too much. Do I?

Alcohol – good or bad?

While most of us know that heavy drinking is harmful, there is confusion as to whether a regular, moderate tipple is good or bad for our health. Here’s what the best research has established:

Light or moderate drinking reduces the risk of heart disease by a quarter compared with not drinking at all, according to a large study that included all types of alcohol. But heavy drinking increases heart disease risk.

Alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer in women, bowel cancer in men and cancer of the mouth, throat, voicebox and gullet (oesophagus) in both sexes, says the World Cancer Research Fund. It also probably increases the risk of liver cancer, and bowel cancer in women.

Where cancer is concerned, there seems to be no safe level: one UK study found that, for middle-aged women, even low to moderate consumption significantly raised the risk of breast cancer.

Light to moderate drinkers have a significantly reduced risk of dying earlier (with wine having the strongest effect). Heavy drinkers increase their risk of an early death.

Heavy drinking is also associated with liver disease, digestive disorders, depression, sexual difficulties, muscle disease and obesity.

Pregnancy: heavy drinking is harmful to the unborn baby but less is known about light or moderate consumption. Pregnant women are advised to avoid alcohol altogether if possible.

The conclusion? Moderate drinking has modest benefits for the heart but may also raise cancer risk. It’s wise to stick to recommended limits: no more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day for men and 2-3 units daily for women.

A unit is about equal to half a pint of ordinary strength beer, lager or cider and a small measure (25ml) of spirits. A small glass (125ml) of wine contains about 1.5 units.