Has An Unacceptable Level Of Drinking Been Described?

Pete Brown has run a series of posts this week and last that delve into stats being issued by various government agencies and health lobby groups in the UK. It is important work that Pete is doing as there is no stat worse than the unexamined stat. Today’s post was called “More Hilarity with Statistics” which examined claims about the level of drinking in Scotland. I made a comment over there but did some more rooting around to make sure I agreed with what I was seeing and, to avoid looking like a totally rude idiot being all finger pointy in the comments, thought I would set it out here instead. I also got thinking because even if a stat can be discredited it does not mean that the underlying facts necessarily do not exists, only that they are not well described. But, as I said in the comments, I am really bad at math so I am happy to be corrected.

The BBC story Pete began with was titled “Scots ‘Drink 46 Bottles of Vodka‘” by which they mean per person per year on average. Pete suggested that this was not particularly well researched as tourism trade taking the booze away was not figured in – but then when I ran the numbers I saw this pattern:

  • Scotland has about 8% of the UK population
  • total UK booze sales in 2007 were worth over 41 billion pounds
  • and therefore, Scotland’s booze sales can be approximated at around 4 billion pounds.

I took the numbers from this soul suckingly slow .pdf source. I read them to meaning that if every penny of the 25 million pounds spent at distillery shops was non-Scots resident alcohol sales, removing it entirely from Scottish consumption, it only represents well under 1% of total Scottish sales? If that is the case, the variation is under a bottle of vodka a year. I said that even if I was off by a whole decimal point and the distillery sales represent 10% of sales isn’t it still a little bit alarming that every Scots adult averages 41 or 42 bottles of vodka a year? By which I mean I had a gut feeling it was in fact pretty high. But is it?

A little more looking around further, found information stating that 30% of Scots adults say they do not drink – which means the drinking Scot averages 58 or so bottle a year working off the conservative 41 bottles a week stat. It is more like 65 a year if you go by the BBC’s number of 46. I got the “did not drink” percentage from this pdf. So you have 30% of Scots not drinking, 35% drinking up to the average and 35% drinking over the average.

What does that mean? 58 bottles a year on average means 1.12 x 700 ml bottles a week at 40% that means 313 ml of pure alcohol a week. By comparison, a standard Canadian 12 oz 5% beer has 341 ml. Which means that average Scots drinker’s booze consumption is the equivalent of 19 standard 5% Canadian beers a week. Sounds like a bit more than you might think is a good idea, week after week day after day. But not fatal. It’s maybe what we expect the average healthy working Joe would drink in a week. Similarly, a US 22 oz bomber has 650 ml. At 8% that is 65 ml of pure alcohol. Which means that the Scot’s drinker’s booze consumption is the equivalent of 4.8 bombers of 8% US craft beer a week. Is that going to scare off a craft beer fan? Hardly.

But it is an average and that is what I think is the real concern. It means 35% of Scots drinkers adults drink more… because 65% drinkers there drink less including the 30% who abstain. I think those numbers are troubling. They may well be wrong so please do your own a arithmetic. But if they are not wrong – is there not a valid public health concern where 35% of your population is doing that level of drinking. I don’t really care if you think there is no such thing as a public health concern from a libertarian point of view as that is not the point here. Nor does someone called “Alan Campbell McLeod” care if you think this is only a Scottish problem. I think we can all agree that there is a point beyond which alcohol is unhealthy. Is that point been identified by the BBC report?

“BrewDog Go Bonkers” by Roger Protz, 30 November 2009

[Stored for cross referencing…]

BrewDog have surpassed themselves with their over-inflated egos and naked ambition. They chose — deliberately, of course — to launch on the very day the Scottish Parliament was discussing a minimum price for alcohol a “beer” with a strength of 32%. Naturally, the wild buckeroos in Fraserburgh claim this is the world’s strongest beer, even though technically it’s not beer at all, as brewer’s yeast cannot work beyond a strength of 12 or 13 degrees. Clearly the new product, called Tactical Nuclear Penguin (what were you smoking last night, chaps?), was finished with a wine or champagne yeast. James Watt, co-founder of BrewDog, said the beer was “completely pushing the boundaries”. Indeed, and it’s also pushing beyond breaking point what sensible beer writers and connoisseurs will take from this bunch of ego-maniacs. Those of us who attempt to paint an image of beer as a fine drink enjoyed in moderation by sensible people have the ground cut from beneath our feet by BrewDog, which just plays in to the hands of the yellow press, ever anxious to give beer a bad name. I don’t often agree with the likes of Alcohol Concern but I think Jack Law, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, hit the soft spile on the head when he said BrewDog was guilty of “childlike attention-seeking”. He added that the fact that the beer, priced at £30 a bottle, had achieved a new record was not admirable. “It’s a product with a lot of alcohol in it, that’s all. To dress it up as anything else is cynical.”

So How Many Calories Are In That Beer Anyway?

calories1You would never confuse me for a jogger. I am big. I like that. I was over six foot at twelve. A small giant. I can pick up things others can’t. Move large objects. I am often asked by little old ladies to reach the high shelf for them at the grocery store. But you have to watch it. Over two decades ago I took the advice of a doctor to watch my blood tests right after he told me I had the results of an 80 year old. In my family of Scots coffin nail puffers, whisky tipplers, fish ‘n’ chip eaters and sofa lobby dossers, well, the genes aren’t that good and my 1980s fry pan diet was not helping. Twenty odd years later filled with daily salmon oil pills, soy and other bits and pieces of the good stuff has resulted in having the cholesterol and blood sugar levels of a daily runner. But I am still big. Good for leaning into the bumper of a car needing to be unstuck in the snow. Not so good for the second 45 years I consider my allotment in life.
calories2So, what to do about that? What to do about the beer? Got me thinking. You know how you play the game of justifying beer. I knew a guy in undergrad who, as part of his “fit yet party” plan, made sure he had over 50% of his caloric intake dedicated to the beer. He didn’t look real good. He invented new shades of grey with his body. Checking around the internet I found a few sources of information on calories and beer but not the real nugget I was searching for. I wondered what was the number of calories in a huge Belgian beer like a 750 ml Trappist quad. Hard to find out. Too much information is couched in the round about approach, in the comforting justification like those found in this article by Michael Jackson from 1994:

On the question of quality, I realised I was worrying unnecessarily: speciality beers would exclude anything as watery tasting as Miller Lite (96 calories per 12oz or 35cl, standard American bottle) or as bland as a regular Budweiser (150 calories). We could have a similar serving of a European-style lager or a pale ale for about 180 calories or less.And, curiously, a beer full of flavour and colour such as Guinness stout weighs in with only 140 calories per 35cl serving. The same amount of wine could rack up more than 240 calories, although we usually serve grape in smaller glasses. But whichever the accompaniment to a meal, the drink contributes far fewer calories than the food.

I mean, there is nothing wrong with that information but who really has the 200 ml glassware which that Jack Michaelson fellow set out with the meal he described? OK, let’s just say I wouldn’t. And what of that big Belgian bomb? Here are a couple of handy lists setting out the of beer to calorie ratio for a huge number of brands. They work on the 100 ml principle. Unfortunately I don’t and neither do you. So let’s think in terms of a 2000 ml scale which is roughly the equivalent of a North American six pack or four UK pints. What does the available data tell us?

  • Guinness (4.1%) – 2000 ml equals a little under 840 calories.
  • Blue Moon (5.4%) – 2000 ml is around 1026 calories.
  • Anchor Porter (5.7%) – 2000ml equals 1180 calories.
  • Dragon Stout (6.8%) – 2000 ml equals 1240 calories.

You can see where I am going with this. I feel like I am breaking some sort of guy rule. Some sort of unwritten law of the beer men. But we have to walk in this world in awareness. So you will not cringe when I note that one McDonalds Angus burger and medium fries is 950 calories or that the same number of calories in raw chopped red cabbage is found takes over 30 cups…which is like 3 bushels, right? You can handle this information. Because you are strong. Because you really prefer a six of Anchor Porter to 46 cups of raw chopped red cabbage.

But how do you know what is in what you put in you? Bob Skilnik, author of Beer and Food, is on the job with his Drink Healthy Drink Smart project that goes along with his book Does My BUTT Look BIG In This BEER. I think it is a great idea, especially for those of us who are closer to (yes, I will say this) retirement than high school. I have not downloaded a copy of DMBLBITB but at only seven bucks you and I probably should. With any luck he’ll tell you what’s in that corked bomber of craft brew quad. Once you know, you may want to plan around it. You may want a few cups of cabbage after all.

Great Summing Up Of The Shadowy Portman Group

The news last week of the shadowy Portman Group‘s abandonment of its efforts to “remove interestingness caused by the more clever smaller competition”¹ from beer shelves of Britain at least in relation to one beer, Orkney’s Skull Splitter, is neatly summarized by Roy Beers in The Publican today, including this telling passage:

It mattered nothing to the Portman Group that (“Mr, to you”) Skull Splitter – nickname for Thorfinn Hausacluif – was historically the 7th Viking jarl of Orkney; or that he has as much right to have a beer named after him as, say, Harald Godwinson or Hereward the Wake. Or William the Bastard. It didn’t signify, either, that the typical Skull Splitter drinker is over 35, possibly a member of CAMRA, and has exceedingly good taste in the matter of high quality strong beer. Of the sort you can savour by a great log fire. Exactly why it has taken the Portman Group so many years to discover this potentially havoc-wreaking brand is a mystery, but perhaps what’s most encouraging about the story is the overwhelming support for the brewery and its beer, with prominent politicians joining the clamour for Skull Splitter’s survival.

I would also add this: why did it take the shadowy Portman group that many years to discover Britain has a Viking history. I am an immigrant’s kid over here in Canada and I – by my name and the village of my mother’s birth – was well aware that Skull Splitter was a reference to the actual Viking history of the actual people in the actual land. That is the thing about your self-appointed betters – if they were actually your betters, you wouldn’t need the self-appointment because they would carry the authority that comes with making good sense.

¹Not quite the actual charge laid in the case.



Pre-Drinking: What Is Old Is New Again

I am not sure what it is about journalists these days but they seem to have entirely forgotten what life was like in the 1980s. People seem to think that, you know, the special friends relationship of hooking up was invented by those with a Blackberry and that facing economic tough times is something that no one has coped with before. Odder, however, than forgetting the lax ways of amore and getting together with pals over a pot of weak tea is the idea that “pre-drinking” as described by the Toronto Star this morning is new:

Young people are engaging in a “new culture of intoxication” that even has its own buzzwords – “pre-drinking” or “pre-gaming.” If you’re a confused parent looking for a simple definition, just click on YouTube, or on urbandictionary.com, where it’s described as the “act of drinking alcohol before you go out to the club to maximize your fun at the club while spending the least amount on extremely overpriced alcoholic beverages.” This new form of binge drinking goes far beyond a warm-up to a night out with friends, says a new report by Centre for Addiction and Mental Health researcher Samantha Wells and two colleagues at the University of Toronto and University of Western Ontario. It’s an “intense, ritualized and unsupervised” drinkfest, in many cases perfectly timed so that the booze hits the bloodstream within minutes of stepping inside the bar, Wells said in a telephone interview from London, Ont.

Wow. They are “unsupervised” when they do this?!?!? Imagine that.

Did anyone involved with these studies ask a Maritimer who was in university a quarter century ago? Frankly, I still find it odd to be in a pub before ten in the evening given that the Halifax social scene required picking up a case (Nova Scotian for 12 beer) on the way home, having something for supper like K-D or oven fries and then landing at one house or another to, frankly, pound them back until it was time to get the taxi downtown. But these days I get all snoozy well too early for this sort of thing. I hardly make it to the end Num-Three-Ers on Friday night at eleven now. Yet somewhere some part of me is happy that gangs of the young are still being safely dumb in fun packs within reasonable parametres, singing at the tops of their lungs, turning into bags of seat as they slam-dance or whatever the kids are up to today.

BrewDog And Skull Splitter Face Humourless Tribunal

Following up on a story we discussed last May, tomorrow’s edition of The Independent tells the sad tale of how both BrewDog and the Orkney Brewery, makers of Skull Splitter, have had a ruling made against them by the shadowy Portman Group – described by The Independent as a self-regulating industry body. Which sounds a lot like another way of saying their competition. Their larger duller competition.

It decided Rip Tide’s description as a “twisted merciless stout” would be associated with antisocial behaviour, while the claim that Hop Rocker was a “nourishing foodstuff” and that “magic is still there to be extracted” implied that it would enhance physical and mental capabilities.

The wisdom did not stop there. Apparently, Orkney’s Skull Splitter “was associated with violence and also could be a reference to its effect on the drinker’s head.” However silly, these macro-saft makers with gavels actually have the power of persuasion and can use that power to affect the marketplace they and their powerless competition work within. Can you see a problem with that? Orkney has issued a press release that says this turn of fate may lead to the brand being pulled even though it is a former Champion Winter Ale of Britain. The BBC has more on the Skull Splitter story.

BrewDog is taking the even higher moral ground by calling for the shadowy Portman Group to be scrapped, according to this story. James Watt, managing director of BrewDog is quoted as saying ‘”[i]t is alarming that an unelected, unrepresentative industry cartel can simply crush the foundations on which our democracy is built.” Can I have an amen? I believe reference to the Declaration of Arbroath is of comfort to we Scots in moments like this.

Full disclosure: James Watt writes me emails once in a while, is named after my Dad’s hometown’s favorite son and is giving prizes for the photo contest. And I like him and his company more than the shadowy Portman Group.

Another Variation On Nutty Nutty World Of Fearmongery

This stuff is too unbelievable to not post for your consideration – with a big tip to Paul:

In a letter to the company, the Portman Group has warned that BrewDog’s products are potentially in breach of its official code of conduct. David Poley, the Portman Group’s chief executive, told The Scotsman: “We have asked this company to take remedial action to address potential problems that have been highlighted to them. “If a company fails to remedy the perceived breach, the matter will be formally referred to our independent complaints panel and, if a case is upheld, we will issue an alert advising retailers not to stock the product until it has been amended.”

Whew – what’s that smell?!? The only issue I have with the article is the claim that BrewDog’s beers are in Canada but as to the rest of it, crazy. Note that the Portman Group is a trade organization which will mainly represent firms who may be losing market to the innovative if cheeky lads from BrewDog. A very good point is made as well as to who is responsible for making cheap booze available to the market – other members of the Portman Group.

You know you are doing something right when this sort of stuff comes crawling out of the woodwork. Read BrewDog’s full response here.



Being Hefty: The Laws And Lies

I’ve been a big guy most of my life, though when I look back now at pictures of me from when I thought I was too heavy makes me shake my head. You do what you can, put down the seventh Ring-a-Ding Junior, do an insane number of sit-up yet still you get to wake up to news like this:

While New York City proposes to force fast-food restaurants to post calorie information on their message boards, these three lawmakers have done the Big Apple one better – proposing to make it illegal for a Mississippi restaurant to serve anyone with a body mass index of 30 or more – the clinical threshold of obesity.

The funny thing is, as we learn through HB, that it is all a lie because the other news today is that “Healthy people place biggest burden on state“:

The study, led by Pieter van Baal at the Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health and Environment, found: “The underlying mechanism is that there is a substitution of inexpensive, lethal diseases towards less lethal, and therefore more costly diseases.” By comparison, being significantly overweight tends to lower overall medical bills: “Obesity increases the risk of diseases such as diabetes, increasing healthcare utilisation but decreasing life expectancy.” They concluded: “Although effective obesity prevention leads to a decrease in costs of obesity-related diseases, this decrease is offset by cost increases due to diseases unrelated to obesity in life-years gained.”

What comfort. We die earlier leaving our children to carry the burden of paying for the thin. No word, however, on the specific effect that beer blogging struggling novice masters shot putters in training have on the public purse. Does this mean health insurers should adjust the tables? Reduce premiums for those who will not reduce?

Last Weekend Of Summer


Somewhere in America I hit two 30 yard field goals. I could do that when I was a skinny kid but haven’t done it for close to 30 years.

cfl2Not really that hard to believe given I filled the gap with at least 20 years of semi-regular soccer but it is a different skill than that round ball with all its room for forgiveness. But I am way too big. I need to do a Ben. So I bought a bench. I need to find my inner ox within my outer Dom Deluise. It’s a good bench. At only 89 bucks USD at a Dick’s it’s what I can use rather than snap.

Transfat Surprise

Reading the NYT this morning, I came across this odd passage in a story about a chef who was given some basic cooking tasks but had to use other oils:

Mr. Schwartz, a chef who has worked in some of the city’s most celebrated restaurants, including Le Cirque and Osteria del Circo, agreed to conduct a cooking experiment on Thursday at the Institute of Culinary Education, where he is an instructor. Could he make dishes that are as good, or better, using only the trace amount of trans fats allowed under the city’s new rules? It was a question many of the city’s more than 20,000 restaurants would be wrestling with. “Personally, I don’t want the government telling me what I can eat,” Mr. Schwartz said, making it clear that he considered the city’s new rule a blow to his civil liberties. Nevertheless, he said, his cooking skills were up to the task.

I am quite shocked that someone who had worked in New York’s most celebrated restaurants was using transfat in what would be an expensive and one would assume carefully sourced meal. To review, transfat is the Ford Pinto of the food world – a design error. It is not a matter of “the food police” stopping you from eating fat. It is a matter of public health that this artificial fat be removed from the market. Craig remembers that there was a big kurfuffle over this on his blog two years ago. I cited this New Yorker article the reading of which was enough to drive transfats out of our house five years ago.

Presuming the NY chef knew of the article, why would he still use the stuff?