Propping up a prime minister

Tony Blair sipping from a tumbler Mr Blair said he always felt "in control" of his drinking

Of all the revelations in former Prime Minister Tony Blair's autobiography, his admission to habitually drinking wine and spirits each night was perhaps the most surprising. But did it matter?

It's been a hard day.

The boss was harping on about that unfinished project, there was a string of chores to do on the way home and the kids refused to go to bed on time.

What better way to relax than to crack open a bottle of wine and collapse in front of the TV?

It is a situation many of us are familiar with. So it is perhaps understandable that after a long day dealing with the pressures of being prime minister, Tony Blair chose to unwind with a drink or two.

However, his admission he used alcohol as a "prop" caught most by surprise.

In terms of units drunk, he confessed, he was definitely at "the outer limit" of what would be regarded as healthy to drink in a week.

Drinking Levels Explained

  • Lower risk drinking - no more than three or four units per day day for men, two to three for women
  • Increasing risk - more than three to four units per day regularly for men, two to three for women
  • Higher risk - more than eight units daily (or 50 units per week) regularly for men, six units daily (35 per week) for women
  • Beer, lager and cider - 2.3 to 3.4 units per pint, small spirit (25ml) - 1 unit, 175ml glass wine at 12% - 2 to 2.5 units

Source: NHS

"Stiff whisky or G&T before dinner, couple of glasses of wine or even half a bottle with it. So not excessively excessive. I had a limit. But I was aware that it had become a prop."

He reasoned that the benefits of relaxation outweighed the loss of time he could dedicate to work but believed he was in control of his drinking.

So was the prime minister overdoing it with drink?

His circumstances may have been unique, but Dr John Foster, of the University of Greenwich' School of Health & Social Care, says Mr Blair's drinking habit was a "fairly typical" response - particularly among the middle classes - to the pressures of daily life.

"As you go up in social class, issues such as stress and coming down from work are things that were particularly mentioned as a reason," says Dr Foster.

Latest NHS research suggests about 9% of people drink almost every day, with those aged 45 or over the most likely to do so.

Dr Foster, who has researched drinking at home, says the habit is growing faster than in pubs, restaurants and cafes.

Start Quote

A lot of people find themselves drinking too much and starting to rely on alcohol without even realising it”

End Quote Dr Rachel Seabrook Alcohol Education and Research Council

An indication of how it has become acceptable to drink behind closed doors, rather than socially at the pub, is given by the Institute of Alcohol Studies which notes that more alcohol is consumed at home than in licensed premises.

Still, former press chief Alastair Campbell was "genuinely surprised" by Mr Blair's revelations - saying he'd never seen him worse for wear through drink.

Given that political correspondents reacted in the same way, the alcohol did not appear to affect his work.

Besides, historians may point out that Winston Churchill managed well enough in the top job, winning a war along the way, despite a deep love for spirits.

But while this sort of drinking falls short of addiction - and many of us might feel able to perform similarly effectively - Dr Foster says it can become problematic if the habit escalates, exacerbating stress and leading to higher consumption levels.

Herbert Asquith Squiffy to his friends - Asquith oscillated at the Despatch Box

"The problems are invisible. Tony Blair's not going to go out smashing windows and that is why it's often rationalised. But you don't see the health effects for years and years," he adds.

Mr Blair may never have shared the reputation for drinking of some of his predecessors, notably Herbert "Squiffy" Asquith who was known to sway when on his feet in the Commons.

But his daily intake, amounting to somewhere around six units, would class him as an "increasing risk" drinker with higher chances of developing cancer, liver problems and high blood pressure.

And some 11% of British men would get through a similar weekly intake, according to government estimates.

But Dr Rachel Seabrook, from the Alcohol Education and Research Council, says those levels may not necessarily be problematic.

"There's a lot of individual variation in how people respond to alcohol. At that level it may not be causing damage," she says.

Liver damage

However, she warns that persistent daily drinking is likely to harm the liver because it gets no time to recover from the toxin.

Dr Seabrook accepts alcohol can help people relax but sounds another cautionary note:

Person drinking wine with feet up in front of fire It might feel relaxing but the benefits can be outweighed by the health effects by the second glass

"That's the first half-glass - as soon as you get onto the second glass, the negative effects start outweighing the benefits.

"A lot of people find themselves drinking too much and starting to rely on alcohol without even realising it.

"You gradually need more alcohol to get the effect you're after."

Mr Blair, she says, deserves credit for recognising how important drinking had become to him because often people think of alcohol problems as something "quite extreme".

However, Dr Seabrook adds that those who fail to accept their drinking has gone beyond normal could find themselves with problems in future.

Below is a selection of your comments

If this is the most surprising revelation in Tony Blair's book, then it must be a very dull read. Most people in this country use alcohol as a prop (even if they don't admit that) and consume more than the daily recommended limit without being "drunks". That the NHS claims only 9% of people drink every day is laughable. I'm sure that's what people told them in a survey but that doesn't make it so.

Iain Morris, London, UK

I am no defender of Mr Blair, but rarely have I read such twaddle about drinking. One gin and half a bottle of wine? This modest consumption must be quite normal for most people in Mr Blair's age group and social condition. In France and other European countries it would be regarded not only as acceptable but positively good for the health. A view to which I wholeheartedly subscribe!

Joseph Sire, London, UK

I used to be a lot like Mr Blair in terms of my drinking from 18 up until around the age of 35, when it became a serious addiction. It took me five years and a lot of hard work to sort myself out. I'm 41 now and I've been teetotal for 19 months. It slowly creeps up on you and certain people will inevitably go over the edge. I often feel like a drink to help me to relax but I'm afraid I may go back to the dark days if I do so. Some people can control it and others can't. I would say Mr Blair was one of the lucky ones that could.

Tony, Cheltenham, England

Why should Tony Blair be any different to the average man who likes to consume alcohol after a days work? Well... because the Labour government bleated on through the press, TV adverts and any other form [to] indoctrinate the general public, telling them how bad excess alcohol consumption is for you. And for all that the nanny state tried to achieve, Tony Blair clearly demonstrated in his frank revelation that his prop was or is no different to the prop that is used by most hard working members of the population, to relax and wind down in the evening.

David Mackay, Nottingham, England

I don't know why Alistair Campbell is surprised. You wouldn't expect someone to be "worse for wear" the following day (or indeed the same day) as a result of half a bottle of wine with dinner. Would you?

Matt, London

Anyone who uses alcohol as a prop, rather than as a pleasure in itself, has got to have a problem.

B A C Smith, Stone, Staffordshire

Tony Blair had a day job whose responsibilities included being Prime Minister of the UK while it was at war. Of course he had problems! I'd be more worried if he didn't.

Dan Piponi, Oakland, CA, US

The fact that he drank while eating is not a problem. This is a custom enjoyed throughout Europe. I should know, I spent a semester studying in Prague. The beer culture over there is far more intensive with a half litre costing 50pence in the right places but it is always accompanied with a meal of meat and bread or dumplings so the alcohol isn't a problem. The problem comes with the UKs fixation on getting as drunk as possible in as short as possible without eating anything.

Gary, Glasgow, UK

I think the article makes it clear, the issue isn't just how much you're drinking it's that blurred line where you don't even realise you now need alcohol. There is a huge difference between having a drink simply because you enjoy it and actually needing it. Too many people don't realise they are already reliant on alcohol because they never stop drinking long enough to find out.

Lorna, Glasgow

I find it interesting that so many people find drinking alcohol like Mr Blair moderate and understandable. We are talking about an addictive, intoxicating drug; would people feel the same if he had a smoke of a joint or a snort of coke? It just seems strange to me that it is socially acceptable to rely on a drug to relax. Should we be looking for healthier ways to unwind?

Taranita, Bristol, UK

Most alcohol consumption numbers are based on self-reporting. As most of us (including Mr Blair) generally under-estimate our use, we are drinking more than the data here reflects. In light of this, the fact that we don't have rampant liver failure would seem to indicate that alcohol isn't as hepatotoxic as we have been led to believe. Since my retirement, alcohol produces an effect less pleasurable than when I was working.

Douglas, Albuquerque, USA

It is shocking that there some people who consider a G&T and half a bottle of wine healthy. I am Italian and I can reassure you that while the consumption of spirits is not a daily occurrence in Italy, half a bottle of wine, consumed either at lunch or dinner and not spread between two meals, is a lot. Stop finding a "health" justification to heavy drinking. It's not cool to get drunk, it's vulgar and crass.

Sabrina, London, UK

As a doctor in the NHS, pretty much every patient drinks more than they should. Way more. Those who dismiss it as safe drinking are very wrong indeed. "Drunks" they may not be but by going over your limit you are not doing yourself any favours. In fact it is these middle class winos that we face a nightmare with in the next 10 to 15 years, with their over modest consumption and subsequent liver damage and failure. Just because they are not homeless, begging for change or down the local every night does not make them any less of an alcoholic.

Michael, Liverpool

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