Why research linking booze and cancer won’t put us off drinking

New research and warnings pointing to a link between alcohol and certain types of cancer have again been making headlines. The health lobby – the anti-booze fanatics – will seize on the findings as an excuse to cajole and bully the public into giving up booze. It seems unlikely that the claims will change behaviour, however, as this article explains.

The reason is simple: we like booze too much. If we didn’t, you wouldn’t have thousands of varieties of drink and myriad evocative names for them. Everyone has a favourite: a dry martini, a pint of ale, a belt of Scotch, a slug of Bourbon, or maybe one of those tall glasses of chilled German lager with beads of condensation running in rivulets down the outside…

Drink acts instantly on the pleasure centres in the brain. It’s powerful and legal. It offers an escape – for a time – from the quotidian world. Added to which, organised religion has declined. More than ever, Britons have a God-shaped hole; many fill it with liquor.

If we are honest, most of us admit we wouldn’t be without our favourite beverage, especially not on account of an increased risk of possible cancer at an indefinite point in the future. It is not a strong enough motivator, being both too vague and too distant. Perhaps we consider the statistics, and decide that the possibility of 13,000 cases supposedly caused by alcohol, out of nearly 300,000 people diagnosed with cancer (in 2007), is not enough to make us concerned. At any rate, a drink makes us feel better, and emboldens us, so we’re even less likely than usual to take any notice of risks.

Alcohol lifts the mood in two ways. It brings euphoria by its direct action, and, in a secondary way, by melting away fear and inhibition. That relief of worry we feel as a blessed relief, which also elevates our mood. Booze frees us to be the person we want to be – fearless, witty, socially confident, attractive. That’s what happens on the upslope, anyway.

Most drinkers, especially if they’ve been around a bit, will be just as familiar with the downslopes – Kingsley Amis’s “metaphysical hangover”. This takes over when the after-effects of three or more stiff cocktails start to oppress our brains with remorse, worry and paranoia. This is when you worry your friends secretly hate you and are plotting against you behind your back.

None of these unpleasant side-effects are enough to put people off alcohol, of course, no matter how many times they say “never again”. This shows what incredible stuff it is, and how compelling. Alcohol is not just fun. Intoxication can produce in us something comparable to a religious experience. In the right circumstances it takes us out of ourselves, helps us to forget and gives us the feeling that we’re in touch with some transcendent truth. In short, it takes us into a mystical state. This is what William James was describing in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). He thought alcohol stimulated the mystical faculties in us, faculties that were “usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour”…..

The Telegraph: Read more – the writer is Andrew M Brown, who has an interest in mental health and the influence of addiction on culture