A couple of experts have just been on the radio warning against a dangerous growth in addictive behaviour among adults in western societies, much of it including internet gambling, porn and gaming, deliberately designed to be so. At the same time the Daily Beast is reporting excitedly that other experts are telling us not to drink more than three glasses of wine a week.
Yes, that's not a misprint. Clever chaps at Oxford University have concluded that the optimum intake of alcohol to dent booze-related deaths should be around 5g a day – that's slightly more than half a "unit" (8g) as currently defined, half of one (125ml) small scotch, half a half pint of beer, half a mean glass of red wine.
Muddled messages here? You bet. The experts who complain about the commercial fostering of dirty habits are surely right. It's obvious to anyone who has watched a small child adeptly playing on an iPad, a teenager – including those of 35 – game-playing on a PC screen, let alone a harassed housewife getting past the chocolate and junk food in the queue for the supermarket till.
But half a glass of wine a day, what my father's generation would have dismissed as merely a dirty glass? As the saying goes, that sounds like a cure worse than the lurking diseases, public policy with little credibility which both contradicts other research that says that moderate drinking is good for most people – and undermines the Department of Health's (DH) official guidelines.
The guidelines have themselves been shrinking safe drinking for years. Twenty-eight units a week for men? Or 21? Twenty-one for women – or 14? The DH has changed its mind. What's more the number of units in a bottle of wine or scotch seems to be changing too. Ah well, say the puritans, the stuff's getting stronger. They say that about pot, too.
Tobacco? Well, that's more straightforward and is more a matter of liberty – the right to sell a legal (and tax-lucrative) substance using lawfully owned brand labels – than of health. Andrew Lansley is surely more right than wrong (I don't say this every week) to argue that alcohol, even crisps in moderation, are OK, but that in health terms the potential damage in tobacco always outweighs the pleasure of the drag.
By coincidence, the papers also contain warnings from the Health Protection Agency that sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise again among those young people not totally addicted to Grand Theft Auto. Charities rush to blame government cuts in the health education budget – they would, wouldn't they? – though it's not father-of-five Lansley who is not taking the precautions that put young people at risk. It's the young people – and we all remember why. It didn't seem important at the time.
The cost of all these bad lifestyle choices is considerable, both in terms of the battered NHS budget and the misery it causes, ill-health, premature death, infertility, domestic violence. Yet we struggle to get a handle on it. On one page of the Daily Beast, people who should know better complain that the nanny state interferes too much in our lives, on the next it demands more intervention to protect us from risks that most adults should be sensible enough to evaluate without having to be told.
The struggle between liberty and 'elf 'n' safety is beautifully illustrated by Thursday's Guardian report about the German climber on Everest who took that now-famous shot of the traffic jam of those mostly romantic amateurs (one carrying his bike) queuing to try to climb the world's highest mountain. Some will die, he thought sadly, and four later did. Lethal places mountains, even for the experts.
Yet the German climber, Ralf Dujmovits, encountered what he called "an overweight French journalist" – a woman weighing 80kg – who had used up all her oxygen long before she had reached the point where a proper climber would need it. Who let her climb? Who sold her the oxygen? It's not a self-regarding action that merely puts her own life at risk. Mountains aren't like that. Climbers are roped.
Fast-forward to the Oxford report. Yes, we know that booze can kill and maim. We can see that every day – though in Fleet Street and Westminster I see rather less of it than I once did and admit to slightly mixed feelings: it was so much more fun in the old days before the new puritanism took hold, a puritanism that is, incidentally, hedonistic in its own way.
But I can't believe any good is served for scientists to step in at a time when governments in London and Edinburgh are grappling with the most effective model of unit pricing (how to target the winos' tipple without being unfair to the sober poor) and suggest that virtual teetotalism is the answer. It just defies belief and as such is bad policy. My oldest friend still drinks four or five proper units a day every day – and he's pushing 85.
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