Moderationism is no good for you

Few things in life these days drive me to plate-smashing distraction, not even George W Bush. I can grit my teeth and drink Australian Chardonnay if I have to, the frisée in the salad I can leave on the side of the plate, and I only have to get on the London Underground about once a fortnight since I left our swinging capital standing at the altar eight years ago. Plastic corks certainly raise my temperature, especially where the retailers are dishonest enough not to warn you they’re there. But what really rattles my cage more than anything else is the M-word. No, not Muscadet, silly, but Moderation.

It hardly seems like yesterday that Frankie Goes To Hollywood were insisting that Sex and Horror were the new gods, and indeed it was fun when they were. But Moderationism is the totem before which all must genuflect now, and even though, like many, I have had to pay it snarling lip-service in writing about wine in the past, the time has come, I feel, to Just Say No.

In distant times gone by (well, about fifteen years ago, actually), the British Medical Association made a serious effort to get us all to see that alcohol was an evil substance. We mortgaged our health to alcohol if we got mixed up with it. This was largely because they believed – and still do – that because there are alcoholics, therefore everybody over the age of 10 who comes into contact with drink is a potential alcoholic. Thus it must be a matter of shrill moralising urgency to wrestle the bottle out of our hands.

xIt was the wine-and-health findings of the early 1990s, originating initially from the cardiology team at Lyon but soon replicated all over the known world, that rather spoiled the party for them. What responsible doctor could caution against a substance that might reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease? The result of this was widespread propagation of the previously ignored unit-counting system. If we were going to have to be allowed to carry on drinking, then it must be within certain strictly defined parameters.Units are supposedly an international language now, but the curious thing is that the British allowance (21 per week for you delicate little girlies, a whole 28 for big strapping lads like me) is considerably lower than what everybody else is allowed.

A unit in the UK is eight grams of alcohol, but it’s ten in Australia, 12 in the USA and 17 in Japan. Funny, that. The BMA (Bloody Morbid Arseholes) wouldn’t have had something to do with the calculations, would they?

If the doctors need to learn how to have a good time, though, so do those wine writers who have seized on the wine-and-health findings. Dr Phil Norrie is an Australian GP and wine-estate proprietor, founder and president of the Medical Friends of Wine Society, an intelligent and reasonable man whose website ( is full of lists of the medical benefits we may expect from drinking wine – or at least, drinking a certain amount of wine. These include reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, but also, more challengingly, reduced blood pressure and better digestion.

The last point will comes as news to the millions who suffer from acid reflux disorder, and to whom the acidity in wine can be sorely chastising. There is as usual with such claims very little mention of livers, beyond the suggestion that those already suffering from cirrhosis would do well to steer clear, but then the liver is the one organ that nobody on the wine-and-health bandwagon really wants to talk about. You may also wonder whether this checklist of health claims can be swallowed neat from somebody in the business of selling wine (Dr Norrie’s health-health website includes an order form that Australian visitors can use to purchase cases of any of his nine hand-crafted wines). I couldn’t possibly comment.

In any case, the advice as always is to consume in moderation. And although the unit content is higher than in the UK, there is disappointing news for 50% of humanity: ‘Women can consume only half the amount that men can consume, because they have only half the amount of alcohol dehyrogenase’. See girls, you really were designed by an all-male committee.

But who, you may ask, would vote against moderationism? It would be like voting against fair play, responsible parenting or nice weather. But on being presented with any of those notions that, while remaining troublingly undefinable, are expected to command universal consensus, we should generally reach for our revolvers.

xWhat moderationism does is set up a shibboleth by means of which the intoxication practices of free-born individuals may be monitored and disparaged by health professionals, pressure groups and not least – and this is the real achievement – by themselves. Now that our societies have largely struggled free from the moralising discourses of the Church with regard to drinking, the spectre of moderation has stepped in to ensure that we all continue to feel guilty about using intoxicants. Moderationism has thus become an ideology and a belief-system, and like many another belief-system, it is policed by nebulous authorities to which none may successfully appeal.The waitress sacked for refusing to serve a glass of wine to a pregnant woman in the USA a few years ago became an overnight folk-hero, although the role she was really playing, did she but know it, was something like a pliable tool of the Inquisition, taking upon herself the right to dictate moral practice to another private individual.

The truth is that we each have our own physical limits with intoxicants, and part of maturity consists in finding out where they lie, so that we may then enjoy intoxication without compromising ourselves or impinging on others. This is inevitably a matter of trial and error, but the overwhelming majority manage to achieve it. All moderationism is doing – whether it be in the form of head-banging editorials in the Evening Standard, tearfully induced confessions on daytime TV or the reckless and pointless prosecution of the international drug laws – is precisely what it claims to revile in drinkers and drugtakers: namely, impinging on others’ lives without their consent.

So the next time some salaried nuisance asks you about your alcohol intake, remember your constitutional rights and tell them to mind their own sanctimonious business. People have fought and died for less.