Sunday, 31 July 2016

All aboard the Ogoerk Bus for Tales of G&T and the Big C

Back in the 1970s, Poland’s buses were nicknamed ogorek (cucumber) buses, as their shape was said to resemble the vegetable. Last week in London, the gin makers Hendricks launched HERBERT (Hendricks Extraordinary Roving Bus for Exceptionally Refined Travel). It's a bus that was cunningly disguised as a cucumber (see here). A soothing G&T with a slice of cucumber to counter travel frustrations (40% of commuters believe that summer is the worst time to travel on public transport) was part of the offer. I say was as the bus only ran last week, the short lived service finished last Friday.

I mention this story for a number of reasons. I have recently taken up drinking Gin. After a lifetime of drinking whisky I have suddenly developed a taste for Gin. Having missed the HERBERT experience, I am pleased to share with you dear reader, the announcement that the UK's biggest Gin festival will be moving out of its current location, the Victoria Baths in central Manchester, to the glorious surroundings of Rochdale Town Hall. It is anticipated there will be more than 100 different varieties of Gin to taste and buy from craft distilleries located across the whole of Great Britain. The event takes place in October this year and tickets are going fast. I've got mine.

Anyway, I'm getting distracted. The main reason for mentioning all things Gin was the report published last week in the journal Addiction by Professor Jennie Connor from the University of Otago (New Zealand's oldest university). Her review of the evidence to date noted there is now overwhelming evidence that alcohol causes 7 types of cancer, and probably others as well. Science has not yet established why this might be, but alcohol is estimated to have caused about 500,000 deaths from cancer a year. This is nearly 6% of cancer deaths worldwide.  

Whilst the highest risks are for those who are heavy drinkers, the evidence suggests that even those who have the odd glass are at risk. Alcohol is already linked to cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, bowel and breast (female). The really bad news is that Connor believes the evidence suggests there is no safe level of drinking. Any claims that a glass of red wine might be good for your heart is completely disingenuous in terms of the cancer risks. Indeed this January, our own UK Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, who herself likes a glass of wine or 2, issued the first governmental advice in 20 years, as to what safe alcohol consumption might be for men and women.

Whilst acknowledging that there were no safe levels of alcohol consumption, the guidance recommended a weekly limit of 14 units of alcohol. This somewhat contradictory message has of course, been challenged by others. Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, who is the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University (2nd oldest university in the English speaking world, and the world’s 4th oldest surviving university) revealed that drinking the maximum allowance is no more dangerous than watching TV for an hour a day or a eating bacon sandwich a couple of times a weeks.

Since 2008, alcohol related deaths have continued to fall across the UK. In 2014, there were just under 9000 alcohol deaths, 65% of which were among males. 55 – 64 year olds form the largest group of those dying from alcohol related deaths. Whilst Scotland has the highest rate of alcohol related deaths, Scotland has also seen the fastest decrease in rates since these peaked in 2000. So let me pause here and review where we have got to. I have a ticket for the UKs biggest gin festival, a House in Scotland, I'm re-watching the first 32 episodes of Cold Feet, and I'm aged 61. On the plus side, I don't eat bacon sandwiches. With such contradictory advice and various interpretations of the evidence it’s difficult to know where I stand. 

I can't help but think that way back in 1871, when the University of Otago opened, coming to a consensus might have been much easier. There were just 3 professors: (1) Classics and English Language and Literature (2) Mathematics and Natural Philosophy (3) Mental and Moral Philosophy Economy – it was a somewhat lean professoriate, but I can imagine them sitting in the Senior Common Room, putting the world to rights over a glass or two of sherry.  It wouldn't happen today, but then, I guess the designers of Poland's buses would never have imagined the affectionate name given to their buses being used in London to provide commuters with a glass of G&T on their way home.