Monday 9 November 2015

No safe level

Has anyone else noticed a shift towards total abstinence in health advice this year? In October, for example, we were told that...

Go teetotal to reduce dementia risks, NHS says 

Official NHS advice on prevention of dementia warns 'there is no safe level of alcohol consumption' which does not increase risk of the condition

That advice goes against the scientific evidence, but that should no longer be surprising. In Ireland, the Royal College of Physicians explicitly denies that there are any health benefits from drinking (despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary) and also parrots the 'no safe level' line...

“People should be aware that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption and they should never drink because they believe there is a health gain from alcohol.”

This, of course, follows in the footsteps of earlier (unproven) claims that there is 'no safe level' of trans fats or secondhand smoke. It is also highly reminiscent of claims made by the crackpot prohibitionist outfit the Scientific Temperance Federation in the early twentieth century. It's rubbish, but it 'sends a clear message' to the public - and that's what counts if you are an activist.

Are we moving towards the same puritanical message for other products? A few recent headlines suggest that the momentum is building. Last week, the Telegraph reported:

Just one steak a week can increase risk of bowel cancer, study finds

Eating just one steak a week increases the risk of bowel cancer by more than two-fifths, it has been claimed.

Also last week, we were given the message that there is no safe level of, er, snacking..

Even a little is too much: One junk food snack triggers signals of metabolic disease

And today in the Mirror we were told that...

Doctors have warned that swigging just one energy drink exposes even "young, healthy" adults to an increased risk of heart disease.

We can expect some 'public health' organisation or other to claim that there is 'no safe level' of fizzy drink consumption soon. Indeed, some people are already saying it...

Soda in any amount is a brain-rotting, heart-wrecking, belly-expanding poison, and the latest science finds drinking even a little bit every day will shave nearly FIVE YEARS off your life... There is NO safe level of soda, period.

Admittedly, that comes from a bit of a crank website, but it has been widely reported elsewhere that 'Just one can of fizzy drink a day [is] linked to increased heart risk' and 'just one can of sugar-laced soda drink a day increases the risk of developing diabetes by more than a fifth'.

Is any of it true and should we care? The answer to the first question is 'possibly'. Leaving Paracelsus to one side for a moment, it is possible for a substance to pose some threat at low levels of exposure. 

Should we care? No. Studies which claim there is 'no safe level' typically find relative risks in the region of 1.10-30 (ie. a 10-30 per cent increase in risk), which can easily be explained by publication bias, data-dredging, researcher bias, poor study design, confounding and chance - which is to say, all the problems associated with junk epidemiology. Even if the risks were real, they would not be enough to concern a normal, well adjusted person. 

A product does not have to be safe. It only has to be safe enough. I, for one, welcome this avalanche of headlines claiming that everyday products are dangerous at any level of consumption. I believe that we are near the tipping point at which the general public ignores everything the 'public health' lobby says. If the quack scientists, vegan pressure groups, anti-sugar fanatics and temperance nuts can maintain their current level of activity for another twelve months, the battle may be half-won.


Just seen this from the Netherlands:

New Dutch healthy diet guidelines say don’t drink alcohol at all

This will happen everywhere eventually, as I have long predicted. Not because the evidence will evolve but because it fits the mindset of the moral crusader.

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