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MPs probe science behind bogus gov booze guidelines

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Science Committee MPs are to investigate the "evidence base" behind the Government's guidelines on alcohol consumption.

A thorough investigation is long overdue, as the Puritanical advice of the doctor's union, the BMA, long ago diverged from the scientific evidence. And there are signs that this inquiry may have teeth. The Commons Science and Technology Committee says it wants to find out more about the evidence base, how these sources could be improved, and how the UK compares to other countries.

One aspect absent from the call for submissions is the close relationship between the academic community and policy makers. Governments sponsor academics to produce "science" of dubious quality to support conclusions reached in advance, what you might call "policy-based evidence-making". We recounted one example of that here related to minimum pricing for alcohol.

The Sheffield meta-study specially commissioned to support the policy buried evidence that moderate alcohol consumption lowers chances of heart disease and strokes. This is called the "French Paradox": France has the sixth-highest level of alcohol consumption in the world, and a notoriously fatty diet, but the heart disease rate is a third of that in the UK.

The Sheffield study admitted that "four out of five cohort studies showed statistically significant reduction of all causes of mortality between 15 per cent and 25 per cent for moderate drinking". And "moderate" was around three pints of beer a day for men, or two glasses of wine for women, per day. The relative risk ratio of beer drinkers developing coronary heart disease is 0.7 (compared to 1.0 for lifelong abstainers), according to studies, and moderate drinking provides a protective function against ischemic strokes, too.

Subsequent studies stubbornly support the conclusions.

If policy makers followed the evidence base, they would advise men and women over 45 to drink more. Yet last week, the BMA called for shorter opening hours of pubs and off-licences, a total ban on alcohol advertising, and higher alcohol pricing. Much energy is devoted to the low-hanging fruit of junk science, such as homeopathy, yet there seems to be a reluctance to tackle the institutional junk.

The Committee is welcoming written submissions of up to 3,000 words by Wednesday 14 September 2011. The details are here.

Please don't use a beer mat. ®

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