Thursday 12 November 2015


Barely a day goes by without some new ‘threat’ to our health being announced by epidemiologists or others health campaigners. For these people – I call them ‘healthists’ - the meaning of life appears to be the elimination of anything enjoyable in order to achieve maximum longevity. Key to this is the elimination of ‘risk-factors’ from our diet and our lifestyles. The key technique used to frighten us all into abstinence is to concentrate on cancer risks. Here an old trick is used: take a very small baseline risk and then measure the increase to that risk that arises if you engage in ‘unhealthy’ eating or drinking. The effect of this is to give prominence and publicity to very large percentage increases in very small baseline risks.

Here are some examples of this crack-pottery that have come to light in the past two weeks:

Firstly, inevitably, alcohol. The ‘lower risk’ drinking guidelines are now being examined by the Department of Health with a view to reducing them. The reason given by the DoH is that there is “no safe level of consumption in respect of the epidemiological risk of developing cancers”, and “the cancer risks of drinking is a game-changer.” It is of course accepted that excessive consumption of alcohol is causally related to a number of cancers, but the risk is dose-related.

So, taking oral cancers as an example, what is the overall risk caused by drinking alcohol? According to Cancer Research UK there were some 7,300 oral cancers diagnosed in the UK in 2012. Of these tobacco smoking was identified as the cause in 65% of cases. Alcohol consumption accounted for 30% of these – some 2,190 cases. 30 million adults in the UK drink at least once a week. Of those 30 million, 2,190 of them develop an alcohol-related oral cancer; that’s 0.007% of regular drinkers! And remember, these figures include very heavy drinkers as well as moderate and light drinkers – so should we panic and abstain? Well, about 30% of alcohol-related oral cancer sufferers do die from this condition. So, around 657 deaths out of 30 million drinkers – 0.021%.

Every such death is a tragedy, but the actuarial risk is minute. The proposition that anything that raises the epidemiological risk of a cancer ‘isn’t safe’ is therefore somewhat problematic. In everyday life people make trade-offs. They don’t ask “is this product or behaviour safe?” they ask “is it safe enough?” We do this all the time and not just in relation to food and drink. We don’t ask is driving a motor vehicle safe; we ask is it safe enough. In other words, do the benefits of driving justify me in taking the risks? When we are told that tobacco smoking results in the premature death of half of all smokers that may well deter people from starting, or persuade existing smokers to quit. But if you were told that 0.021% of regular drinkers die from an oral cancer, would that put you off? It is this kind of epidemiological paranoia that leads healthists to call for abstinence and any lowering of the lower risk drinking guidelines is but a staging post on that journey.

In addition to the cancer risks of alcohol we’re had some real healthist gems in the past fortnight:

·         The official advice of the European Food Safety Authority is as follows: when you make a piece of toast only toast it golden brown, don’t burn it or you will ingest acrylamides which are carcinogenic. Acrylamides are contained in crisps, savoury snacks, soft and crispy breads, biscuits, cakes, crackers, cereals and coffee. Or anything nice.
·         Fry your foods in butter or lard because frying them in vegetable oil raises your risk of cancer.
·         Less than one sausage a day increases your cancer risk. And be sure not to cook your Sunday roasties too dark and crispy because they contain acrylamides too!
·         Eating a steak once a week rectal cancers by more than two fifths.
·         Less than one sausage a day raises your risk factor for cancer.

But my favourite was cheese addiction. Cheese contains casein – a protein which becomes super concentrated in the cheese making process and forms morphine-like compounds. These then bind with the opioid receptors in your brain making cheese as addictive as morphine. Pizza restaurant chains are nothing more than drug dealers who rely on addiction for repeat business! Dr. Neal Barnard, founder and president of the Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine, describes cheese as “dairy crack”.

And then we come to energy drinks.  Doctors warn that just one energy drink a day raises the risk for heart disease even amongst young healthy adults. This is a veiled attack on caffeine, which is of course contained in coffee. I was wondering when coffee drinking was going to be attacked by healthists. Anything that is successful raises their ire. My tip is that the epidemiological risks of caffeine consumption will be the next ‘big thing’ to occupy their small minds.

Paul Chase

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