The Data on Drinking

Drink?: The New Science of Alcohol and Health, by David Nutt

David Nutt is an English neuropsychopharmacologist, meaning he studies drugs that affect the brain. Of which alcohol is a big, bad one.

He was fired, or asked to resign, from his position as a government drug advisor for saying on primetime radio “that alcohol was the most harmful drug in the UK. At that time alcohol wasn’t even allowed to be considered a drug by the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs – the ACMD – despite every scientist in the country knowing that it most certainly was a drug.”

He returns to this point that got him in trouble, asserting that neither the government nor the alcohol industry wants it classified as a drug, but from his perspective as a scientist examining alcohol’s affects on the brain’s neurotransmitters, that status is indisputable.

Drink? is a collection of information about some of alcohol’s neurological and other physiological effects, as well as data about the harm its use — even in alarmingly small amounts — can have on our behavior and lives. Plus the striking big picture impact: “In the US, drinking costs $249 billion a year of which $28 billion are health care costs and $23 billion from crime.”

There’s a lot of fascinating information and data here, but it’s mostly written like an extended heath department pamphlet. It’s undeniably important, but could it be any…drier (pun intended; I’m sorry.)

It’s sometimes just lists of statistics and data. Nevertheless, I still highly recommended it if you’re interested in the topic, and as a resource (plus it’s not very long so it’s not a massive time commitment). I’m especially interested, having come at it from multiple angles over time, both the weird feelings and treatment by those around you when you don’t drink, and later self-medicating with alcohol, as well as seeing its powerful and uncomfortable effects on and control over people I’ve been close to. So regardless of whether it’s the juiciest read or not, I wanted to learn from it and I did. If you feel similarly, it’s helpful.

He identifies there being a marketing push that “has altered our perception” of the way we consume alcohol, including its ubiquity in “every part of our lives” — he lists social bonding, drinking to close business deals, to celebrate births and commiserate deaths. Like I mentioned with this book, this is an area I want to know much more about and I can’t seem to find an in-depth resource for it.

There is a somewhat scary element, like when he writes that “Years before any health issues show up, alcohol is already affecting very organ and system of your body, including your brain. And there are more subtle changes happening too, “affecting health, sleep, work performance, skin, fitness, and sex life.” Or that “the safe limit of alcohol, if you applied food standards criteria, would be one glass of wine a year.” And to stay below the acceptable food standard risk for cancer in particular, you could consume “a maximum of two standard drinks a year.” Fuck.

His main message is that he doesn’t want you “to throw alcohol down your throat without thinking.” He argues for being conscious of what you’re drinking and why, and that drinking should be a “positive, active pleasure rather than a reflex and habit, or something you’ve always done, or self-medication for stress or anxiety.” And to understand what amount of alcohol makes sense for you in terms of your personal risk-benefit analysis. On this basis, I think this is a must-read for any drinker, whether you consider yours problematic or not.

It’s well-sourced and cited, but when it’s not I was left wondering. Like this: “Most of us have some level of social anxiety, and alcohol removes our fear and inhibitions.” For me, this is entirely true. But I’m curious about the broad assumption. Of course alcohol lowers inhibitions, but do most of us really have some level of social anxiety? On the one hand, I’m relieved at being less alone; on the other, I’m suspicious just based on a lifetime of observation.

The bottom line, much as we don’t like to hear it, is that “no level of drinking is actually beneficial to health.” I suspected as much. He goes into a lot of detail around this which I appreciated and find valuable, because as he notes, “everyone who drinks loves to read all the reasons why it’s a good idea, right?” And they love to parrot these, but the reality is that research shows that “any protection (by red wine against stroke, for example) would be more than cancelled out by the negative effects.”

It also contained a fascinating look at how many lives have been saved, albeit controversially, by raising the federally mandated drinking age in the US to 21 in the 1980s — something I found Europeans constantly marveled at, since most European countries sell beer and wine from age 16. He says it’s credited with saving hundreds of thousands of live in road accidents, since “Young people’s driving is much more impaired by a given level of alcohol.”

One section I loved and wished I’d heard about a long time ago was the prevalence of problematic drinking among expats. This happened to me and every single one of my close expat friends, yet I had no idea it was a widespread occurrence, I thought it was just us, which now seems ridiculous. For factoids like that, I found this very helpful and I think anyone with questions or issues around consumption would be likely to find some kind of answer or direction for pursuing further research here.

And it has actionable sections, like in how to deal with people who badger you about not drinking, providing some helpful statements. Sadly, one of these is a reminder of the advice that “No is a complete sentence.” Which bums me out that some people are so aggressively uncomfortable with non-drinkers that you have to use the same words as when dating an asshole. Drinking culture fascinates me for this reason, and this is a good step in learning more about it, if a bit clinical.

Also interesting: the author owns a wine bar in London, despite having lost a job for refusing to compromise on acknowledging the dangers of alcohol and insisting it be classified as a drug. I sense some curious cognitive dissonance, although again, his main message is to be conscious of what, why, and how you’re drinking and adjust your ideas of moderation even lower, not to abandon it completely. Whether it’s realistic and achievable for most, I’m not sure.

Drink?: The New Science of Alcohol and Health
by David Nutt
published December 22, 2020 by Hachette

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

27 thoughts on “The Data on Drinking

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  1. Wait a minute, the author is a neuropsychopharmacologist AND he owns a wine bar? Busy guy.

    Anyway, you know I’m also interested in this topic so it was great to see your review. I think it’s really important to have factual information in this area, because there is so much emotion connected to it and so much moralizing. I don’t think either of the latter are helpful in making informed decisions.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know, right? I admit I was a little skeptical at first because that just seemed too dissonant for me, but he does a good job of just presenting the facts and data as they are and emphasizing that each person needs to decide what amount in what context is right for them while having all of this information. I like that approach. And I completely agree with you around the emotional aspects and moralizing, neither are helpful at all. It’s something I would like to understand better, why we have such strong connections in those areas to alcohol when it really should only come down to information like this. I think you’d get a lot out of this one.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This is such an important subject….and I do want to read this book before my 31 Dec deadline!
    Just yesterday I read in the Sunday Times (UK) some staggering statistics: Boozing up by 50% since first Covid lockdown.
    Record numbers of people have been drinking more than five bottles of wine a week since the first national lockdown was imposed, figures published by Public Health England reveal.
    Almost one in 20 people are drinking more than 50 units of alcohol per week. This is about 50% higher than in March, when the figure was about one in 30.
    But wait….there is some good news,,,
    …the proportion of people who did not drink rose from 34.7% to 41.3% between March and September. Time to order this book ASAP! Hope you are enjoying Xmas in Austria….be it in lockdown! The Netherlands imposed a flight ban on travellers from the UK at 6am on Sunday. Ferry travel between Britain and the Netherlands was closed to all but non freight passengers on Sunday evening, as the UK was virtually cut off from mainland Europe following an outbreak of a more infectious form of coronavirus. This is a Christmas….I won’t ever forget!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow, that is staggering! I knew drinking was way up this past year but I had no idea it was so severe. Incredible. It’s troublesome to think of where this could lead too, in terms of long-term dependency. Although great that others became more committed to not drinking. I’m surprised by that one though, as I would’ve expected this could’ve caused more relapses due to stress and triggers. Interesting!

      It’s looking like Austria is set to ban UK flights as well. What a mess. I’m trying to enjoy it, just disappointed that if I’d flown two days earlier my negative test would’ve been enough to save me 5 days in lockdown. I don’t want to go anywhere besides just out for a walk everyday. It’s so hard to have been gone for months and now just trapped in the apartment and we only have a few days before going to Berlin. I would’ve loved to be able to go for a walk after work each day just to say some mental goodbyes, you know? But I’m trying not to be too upset about it, it’s a minor problem in the scope of things, I know! I hope you’re getting to enjoy your Christmas cooking, at least!


  3. Saying good-bye to such a beautful city….all I can say
    …overdose on Sachertorte while you can!! 🙂
    I’m cooking everyday smth wonderful …today stuffed Portobello Mushrooms!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was a great post! My husband and I went spontaneously sober in April – who chooses a pandemic to go sober?!?! – and it’s been quite interesting to see the results in our sleep, behavior, and family life (all positive, great changes)! I really enjoyed Quit Like a Woman…have you read Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls? Also about addiction, but also adds in quite a bit about codependency and enabling, but I liked it as well!


  5. This was a great post! My husband and I decided to go sober spontaneously in April – who does that in the midst of a pandemic?!?! – and it’s been amazing to see the results (sleep, behavior, and family life)! I also enjoyed Quit Like a Woman…have you read Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls? It’s also about addicion, but also dives into codependency and enabling as well…but very good, nonetheless!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad to hear you’ve had so many improvements since cutting out drinking!! Not surprised based on everything he included here. I knew it affected so much but it was a bit head-spinning to really consider all these implications from so little of the substance. Nancy above shared a statistic that although people have been drinking more during the pandemic, many have quit as well, so youre in good company! 😊 I really liked a lot of the beginning of Quit Like a Woman but it turned a bit self-helpy for my tastes. It had a lot of interesting info though. I haven’t read Good Morning but it sounds familiar…I tend to shy away a bit from addiction memoirs because they can be so upsetting but that one does sound really good. I need to page through it, I think. Thanks for the recommendation!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. A shame this was so dry, because it does sound like a fascinating topic and it sounds like the effects of alcohol are worse than I was aware, although I’d always mentally grouped it with drugs for its impact on behavior and addictive properties. I don’t drink much myself, but certainly well over the one or two drink a year limits the author suggests, so I’d be interested to learn more about why drinking more than that is a bad idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I gave up alcohol about 2 years ago and it’s the best thing I have done but cannot be smug, who knows what is round the corner… I was just totally in the habit of red wine each night, the amount was increasing and it was doing me no good. Also hated the idea of not being fit to drive should there be an emergency. This book sounds good. I found some quit lit helpful when first giving up. But the other day I picked up Glorious Rock Bottom by Bryony Gordon, a UK journalist who seems to make a career by having every issue currently fashionable, she did being single and used by men, then she did her mental health issues, then she single-handedly invented jogging and now she is doing giving up alcohol. When I turned the page of her latest book and read about how she was so drunk she was snogging a woman while a man snorted coke off her boobs I knew that me and Bryony had to part ways. Enough already girl, you are married with a kid, I am not buying your wild and lost routine…ugh.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh I didn’t know you’d given it up! That’s amazing! It sucks to acknowledge this but it seems like that’s the best way. He describes what you do, though, of letting it become a thoughtless habit and how bad that is. So his message is if you do drink, you need to be really aware and conscious and enjoy it instead of allowing it to become reflexive.

        I haven’t heard of Bryony Gordon, but ugh, that sounds insufferable. I’ve read a couple of decent addiction memoirs (Blackout by Sarah Hepola is a favorite) but they can be so self-indulgent and uncomfortable sometimes. It usually feels more like an author purging all the things they’re disturbed by in themselves, or something, I’m not sure. I’m especially suspicious if someone has ALL the problems like her and writes about each one 😂 A bit much!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I think he more acknowledges that most people aren’t going to only have a drink or two a year even though that’s the limit for no health consequences, so it’s best to be aware of all this information and then decide what it’s worth to you to drink and make the most of any time you do drink. That seemed like a worthwhile message to me, and there really were a lot of incredibly interesting facts and statistics, it just could have been packaged a little more smoothly, I think! I still say it’s worth reading if it’s a topic you find yourself really interested in 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Having read a whole heap of quit drinking lit I probably won’t read this as there are numerous books on the subject. The best one, and the one that literally changed my life, is ‘the unexpected joy of being sober’ by Catherine Gray. She touches on all the issues you mention in your review and her own story is inspiring. It led me to give up drinking over a year ago and it is quite simply the best gift I ever gave myself. Xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great review! Sorry to hear it’s a dry read, but it sounds like there’s a lot of important information packed into the book so I think I’ll still plan to pick this one up at some point. Drinking has always been presented to me as such a casual thing that when you first posted about this book as an upcoming release I latched on, wanting to learn some actual facts about the costs of drinking that apparently no one knows or at least they don’t talk about. It’s definitely an area I want to be more informed in, and it sounds like this is a great resource to get started.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is such a great review! I started (about two years ago) noticing that everyone in every show and movie just drank all the time. I think it started with an article about how much apple juice a sober actor drank in lieu of whiskey and I couldn’t stop. It is everywhere! And, we forget that TV shows don’t show us every Tuesday but, instead, make everything look like Friday.

    I’ve never been a big drinker – I was the designated designated in my group of friends and that was fine with me. I’m silly enough without alcohol. But, like sugar, it is delicious and can go from “treat” to “regular” so quickly so I appreciate the mindfulness tip!

    I will probably request this one from my library and look forward to it in 2021.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!! And yes, you’re so right, the drinking that’s so subtly ubiquitous in TV and movies definitely worms its way into your subconscious. And I think mindfulness is a major point here. I noticed how easily it is to make daily drinking a habit, like when work is finished and that’s the immediate transition to your free time, but it gets out of control really quickly.

      Definitely request it, I think it’s a worthwhile read even if it’s strictly informational and not so creatively written. I can’t say I was bored while reading it, it’s still fascinating. Would love to hear your thoughts on it!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m so glad you gave a thorough review because I probably won’t read this one but appreciate knowing the overall takeaway. I don’t consciously drink to relieve stress but I love the taste of certain beers and wine. My limit is nearly always one glass sometimes less. I don’t think I have a problem because I can go for weeks without a drink. So I assumed I had this under control until reading your post. I guess I should cut back. Yikes. Good to know. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. According to what’s best for health, apparently that’s still too much. Yikes indeed. I was also a bit surprised. But based on what he says about the mental/psychological aspects it sounds like you drink for the right reasons and enjoy it, and that’s what he emphasizes as most important. So to be aware of the risks but if it’s worth it to you anyway, then know how much you’re consuming and why. It’s been some tough knowledge for me to sit with since reading, but I feel better knowing in any case. Glad I could give you some info too!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Sounds like an interesting read. I’m fascinated by drinking culture and our love/hate relationship with alcohol. When I was in my 20s, I drank to excess (like many), part of it because that’s what lots of others were doing, but also because I had social anxiety, especially when I was attracted to a woman and I relied on alcohol to poke holes in the formidable internal defenses my psyche had erected to keep me isolated and safe from potential humiliation. Same with my brother (which always blew my mind because he was handsome) and he became an alcoholic who eventually had to give up drinking. Even fourteen years later, he still really missed alcohol, not for getting drunk, but because he felt like it enabled him to be the person he wanted to be — fun and carefree — but which invariably led him down a bad path.


    1. I’m so fascinated by the culture as well, and can’t seem to find exactly the book I want to read about it! The way you describe your drinking sounds like what he pinpoints here as the best way to manage it for yourself — so knowing why you do it and when it’s for the wrong reasons. That’s such a tough area to master, I think. And I’m so sorry your brother went through that — it shows how vulnerable we all really are, I guess, regardless of how others perceive us. There’s a lot I miss about the comfort of drinking to excess and the barrier it provided but it just never ends well. I feel lucky (?) in a way that I can take it or leave it now, but having the reminder of how bad it can get is very frightening as well. I think whatever our issues with alcohol are we’ll deal with them life-long. Such a strange substance!


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