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Totto Blotto


Posted on 18 December 2009

blotto.jpgThe planet may be heading for Gas Mark 10 – and the country half buried under snow – but that is not the only science anomaly in the news.

Yesterday, we had Pants telling us that not a drop of the demon drink should pass the lips of children. Where once we had Gin Lane, we now have middle class parents weaning tiny tots into blotto tots. Pants even managed to tot up some figures of his own: half a million of England’s 11-15 years olds had been drunk in the last four weeks, he wailed, before switching to Full Temperance Mode: childhood was being robbed of its ‘clear-eyed innocence’, only to be replaced with the ‘befuddled futility’ of ‘dirt cheap alcohol’.

Now, we all know that Pants is not one to let science get in the way of a good scare. After the first and then the second wave of his swine ‘flu epidemic both bombed, he moved onto a third wave. We can expect many more waves, before he finally waves good-bye next May.

So it is always a good idea to check out the science behind Pants’ alarmist claims. And – as is so often the case – much of the science behind the scare lacks substance.

The guidance – available here – kicks off with some high impact headline figures. But they are extrapolated from other studies, available here. And – blow me down – what do we find but selective reporting! The most interesting statistic that isn’t quoted is perhaps the most significant given Pants’ claim that Armageddon is nigh: there has actually been a marked decline in drinking amongst 11-15 year olds over the last few years, from 26% reporting having had a drink in the last week in 2001 to 18% in 2008 – a whopping 30% reduction, with 2008 rates being the lowest that have been recorded for 20 years (figure 3.2 and table 3.3).

In another section, Pants opines that “The range of adverse outcomes that children and young people risk when drinking alcohol is substantial. Section 5 provides a detailed review of the international literature.” A box-out in Section 5 (Box 5) obligingly lists no fewer that thirty-nine “Examples of disease and injury associated with alcohol consumption”.

But again the evidence is wanting. Many on the list – which the guidance admits has been established ‘primarily in adults’ - aren’t going to affect 11-15 year olds. The list is grim – but largely irrelevant. And when Pants moves on to “Alcohol and the developing brain” – conjuring up a gruesome imagery of pickled tot brains, of teenage cerebella awash in a sea of cider, it seems, for a moment, that here, at last, we might find some hard science to give substance to the alarm.

But no. Despite a thorough review of the literature, not one paper could be found that substantiated the premise that the demon drink fizzled adolescent neurons. One paper regretted that “The cross-sectional designs and small samples characterizing available studies hamper definitive conclusions.” while another wept “research on the effects of alcohol on the developing adolescent brain has not, as of yet, produced definitive results”.

Even the studies that look at the relationship between age at first drink, and subsequent alcohol related harm, which do show some correlation, are nonetheless too weak in effect, too diffuse in location, and too general in their assessment to provide satisfactory evidence that Pants’ premise – that any alcohol consumed before the age of 15 puts us at risk of a national decline into ‘befuddled futility’ fuelled by ‘dirt cheap alcohol’.

By now, Dr No had had enough. He hasn’t read all the guidance and reports, nor all the references, but everywhere he has looked he has found cod-science and exaggerated claims. This is state control by way of pseudo-science. It doesn’t wash. It is bad medicine.

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