A sober reflection on ‘dangerous drinking’

What is RRSHS? And why is it so bad for you? RRSHS refers to Relative Risk Scary Headline Syndrome: why bore people with a sober assessment of how likely something is to kill them when you can scream a terrifying figure at them instead? RRSHS, asserts this article, is exactly the case behind the UK government’s latest “bizarre claims about booze” – ie that consuming two large glasses of wine or two strong pints of beer a day triples their risk of developing mouth cancer.

NHS recommendations are that men should not regularly drink more than three to four units a day, and women not more than two to three. Adverts will run under the Change4Life banner and people will be able to access a new online calculator to work out how much they are drinking. Two million leaflets will also be made available to Change4Life supporters and health professionals across England.

Drinkers will be encouraged to cut down through measures such as having alcohol-free days, not drinking at home before going out, swapping to low- or alcohol-free drinks and using smaller glasses.

Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, said: “It’s crucial we support people to know about how drinking too much poses health risks and how they can control their drinking. It can be easy to slip into the habit of having a few extra drinks each day, especially when drinking at home. But there can be serious health risks.”

Classic case of RRSHS

Analysing this new campaign, writer, Timandra Harkness, believes you’d have to be “completely hammered to take seriously the [UK] government’s latest bizarre claims about booze.”

She calls this a classic case of RRSHS – Relative Risk Scary Headline Syndrome. Why bore people with a sober assessment of how likely something is to kill them when you can scream a terrifying figure at them instead? So what if they’re far more likely to die of something else?”

She continues: “Apparently, two large glasses of wine, or more, a day could make me three times more likely to get mouth cancer.’ Cue shocked gasps from the two plasticine characters in the new TV advert for Change4Life, a National Health Service campaign. Which is, in case you hadn’t guessed, designed to make us drink less.

None of us wants to die from mouth cancer. So wouldn’t we all want to avoid something that triples our chances of getting it? But what is the risk of getting mouth cancer? Let’s see: in 2010, 1,975 people in England and Wales died of cancer of the lip, oral cavity and pharynx. Out of these, 663 were women, just like the hypothetical female plasticine drinker in the advert. So of the 31,753,620-ish women living in England & Wales in 2010, 663 died of mouth (or voicebox) cancer. That’s one in 47,894. Multiply that risk by three, and the risk goes up to three in 47,894, or a one-in-15,965 chance of dying from mouth cancer.

To put that another way, the campaign is suggesting that if 48,000 women all drank two large glasses of wine every night (it doesn’t specify for how long – a year, 20 years – this is a health campaign after all, so why would we need to see proper research citations?), then out of those assiduous drinkers an extra two would die in a year because they drank more than the government guidelines suggest….” Read the full article here [a favourite website that lives off spiking the presumptious, the common wisdom…]