Unfortunately, Australia’s newspaper readers might despair at getting an accurate view of the alcohol guidelines to be distributed by the National Health & Medical Research Council.

In The Australian, culture war warrior Janet Albrechtsen admitted she had not seen the report but went ahead and ridiculed it anyway. “The nanny state has apparently spoken. I went to bed last night feeling happy after a night out with friends. I wake up in the morning to news that I am a binge drinker because I indulged in more than three glasses of wine.”

Her misreporting seems to have (mis)led journos all over the country to whoop it up at the expense of those crazy boffins at the NHMRC who just want to spoil people’s fun. Only problem is she got it well wrong, and so did they all, of course. Following the leader, Crikey’s Bernard Keane (Bingeing on a ute full of alcopops, yesterday), made two mistakes:

  1. The NHMRC has not said that 4 standard drinks constitutes a binge.
  2. The NHMRC does not say more than two standard drinks constitutes risky drinking.

The guidelines constitute simple and transparent advice for drinkers.

The draft published last October stated that adults who drink no more than two standard drinks per day (cumulatively 14 standard drinks per week) have a low chance of incurring an alcohol related harm (i.e. an injury, accident, disease). “Low risk” means one chance in 100 of such an outcome when compared to a non-drinker, who has zero risk.

Consequently, if an adult drinks more than two drinks on any occasion, their risk of an injury or accident is better than one in 100, and the odds worsen as they consume more. If they do so over many years, the odds of an alcohol-related disease increases too. What is hard to understand? Readers of Crikey can cope, maybe also readers of The Australian and The Age.

Despite Albrechtsen et al, the NHMRC draft did not employ the term binge drinking because medical scientists do not agree on how many drinks constitute a “binge”, or the period of time in which they must be consumed to qualify as a binge. Nevertheless, it would be a pity if the term is lost, as it is an expression that resonates with the public. Most people understand “binge drinking” to mean an episodic bout of excessive and unsafe drinking, usually ending in extreme levels of intoxication. British researcher Fiona Measham uses the expression “determined drunkenness” as a synonym for a binge.

Other countries suggest a daily limit of close to two Australian standard drinks (20 grams of pure alcohol) or a weekly max of 14 units/standard drinks (140 grams). They include Japan (14 units or 140 grams), Finland (15 units or 150 grams), Canada (14 units or 190 grams) and Austria (168 grams per week). Suddenly the NHMRC doesn’t seem outlandish. No-one imagines that everyone will always restrict themselves to this level but it indicates what medical scientists think is relatively safe. What is the alternative: should they tell us what we want to hear, or the truth as they understand it?

Janet Albrechtsen did journalism no credit in retailing her own invention.

Those who followed her did no better. There is no doubt that the alcohol industry wants to discredit the NHMRC guidelines. Is that what it was all about?