New Zealanders are under siege, bombarded almost weekly with warnings that we’re killing ourselves, either by drinking too much, eating the wrong food or being too fond of sugar.
Last week a coterie of academics from Otago, Auckland and Oxford universities called for special taxes on fatty and salty foods and government subsidies on fruit and vegetables.
Luckily for them, they wouldn’t have to work out the nightmarish regulatory details such a proposal would entail, nor pay for the army of public servants that would be required to administer it. Not their problem.
A couple of weeks earlier, at a conference in Wellington, the head of preventive and social medicine at Otago University, who also happens to be a campaigner for stringent liquor controls, recited a slew of scary statistics linking alcohol consumption with cancer.
Professor Jennie Connor said that for women, cancer was the most common fatal consequence of drinking, accounting for 44 per cent of all alcohol-related deaths. In 2007, according to her figures, 243 cancer deaths were attributed to drinking.
And just to frighten people more, she said that about one-third of alcohol-related cancer deaths occurred among women who had fewer than two drinks a day.
In other words, forget all that reassuring stuff about drinking in moderation. There’s no “safe” level of consumption.
Now I admit I’m just a dumb layman, but loose phrases such as “attributed to drinking” and “related to drinking” arouse my journalist’s scepticism. They seem to fall short of a definitive statement that these women got cancer and died specifically as a result of drinking.
Besides, I wondered how doctors could be so sure that it was alcohol that caused these fatal cancers and not some other factor – or, more likely, combination of factors. How can they so confidently rule out genes, for example, or general diet and lifestyle?
And why don’t academic researchers also mention, just to prove they’re not ideologically biased, that many people drink in moderation throughout their lives and are still healthy in their 80s and 90s? That might present a slightly more balanced picture.