Beware Of Alarmist Nonsense

By Dr Joe | April 7th, 2012 at 8:52 am

Regular readers will know I am not a fan of hysteria in health stories. In the last couple of weeks we have had two. The WA State Government is running an advertising campaign on the dangers of alcohol. Nothing new there you might think.

This campaign focuses on the link between alcohol and cancer. It describes alcohol as a carcinogen (which means that it is known to cause cancer in humans), which again is nothing new.

The new part is drawing an analogy between alcohol and tobacco and asbestos. Essentially the ads imply that alcohol is as dangerous as asbestos and tobacco. But it gets worse in that the ads suggest that even one drink puts you at risk of cancer. This borrows from the anti smoking message that every single cigarette is doing you harm.

Except tobacco and alcohol are not the same things.

It is a statement of the obvious to say that excess alcohol consumption is a major problem in society. This affects the individual directly and also others (via violence or road trauma to name but two). But excess is not the same as moderate and moderate alcohol consumption is not a problem.

There has not been an increase in alcohol consumption over the last 30 years. In fact per capita consumption has been in decline.

Alcohol also gets the blame for problems caused by other drugs. Over the last decade there has been an increase in violence at nightspots and parties. This is blamed on alcohol alone but is in fact due to alcohol mixed with illicit drugs- mainly amphetamines.

This is the “secret” that neither police, governments nor public health people want you to know. It is easier to blame alcohol and those who sell it and try to make the rest of us feel guilty about enjoying a drink or two than to admit that there are other problems that they (the authorities) cannot control.

To suggest that one drink is as bad for you as ten causes two problems. Firstly people will just switch off and completely disregard the message, as it is rightly seen as alarmist. So instead of thinking about how much we drink, we will switch off. Secondly and this is worse, the coded message is that if one drink is as bad as ten then you might as well have ten. This is completely counterproductive.

Scare tactics have a limited use. The first time we see a “horror” film we jump. On a second viewing we know what is coming and the shock is lost. Alarmist health scares do not work either. If they did nobody would smoke or be overweight!

The other scare this week came from the Road Safety Council. Fines from speeding were up 60% in 2011. The road toll was substantially unchanged. Most “offenders” were caught doing 9 – 19kph over the limit but a substantial number were doing less than 9kph over the limit.

The chairman of the Road Safety Council was quoted in The West Australian newspaper as saying that low level speeding caused the same problems as high level speeding. “Low level speeding is one of the deadliest epidemics on our roads” was the quote in the paper.

Really? So driving at 5kph over the limit is the same as 50kph over the limit? As with the alcohol story, it becomes easy to totally dismiss the whole message. And   if speeding really fast is no worse than a doing a few “ks” over the limit then   why not go the whole hog?

Shrill alarmist messages at best do no good and at worst are counterproductive by sending a coded message that ten equals one or 50 equals five.

Will the powers that be ever learn? Personally I doubt it.

 

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