Curious piece in the Standard the other day about drinking, or, as the paper cheerfully put it, “boozing”. This reported the results of a large survey conducted in October and November into local drinking habits.

This has the unfortunate result that the information contained is already outdated, because the legislature has just passed a ban on selling alcoholic drinks to people under the age of 18. We do not know what effect this ban will have, but presumably, it will produce some change in local drinking habits.

File Photo: Greyerbaby, via Pixabay.

The survey was conducted by the Hong Kong Anti-Cancer Society, which is interested in the matter because alcohol is a “known carcinogen”. One rather got the impression that they would like to see it banned completely.

The chairman of the society’s cancer education committee, one Rico Lu King-yin, asserted flatly that “there is no safe level of alcohol consumption”, which was well ahead of the evidence the society was offering.

As so often happens with crusades of this kind, righteousness triumphed over accuracy. I presume the society was responsible for the catchy line in the first paragraph of the story saying that “more than a third of people in [Hong Kong] binge drink”.

Alcohol beverages. File Photo: jProgr via Deviantart.

Further down the story we were told that almost 70 per cent of respondents had “been drinking” in the past three months. Of these, 45 per cent were binge drinkers. I take the “almost 70 per cent” to be a euphemism for 69 per cent. Then 45 per cent of that will get us to 31 per cent of the population as a whole, which is not more than a third. It is less than a third.

Still, 30 per cent of the population binge drinking seems an awful lot. You would expect on most evenings to find the streets littered with comatose alcoholics, the gutters running with blood and vomit.

But society’s definition of binge drinking explains why it is so popular. A binge, apparently, consists of drinking “five cans of beer, five glasses of wine or five shots of liquor in one session”.

You cannot be serious. Five cans of beer is not a binge, it’s an aperitif. The ancient university which I attended was often the scene of formal dinners in the traditional style. This involved a glass or two of sherry beforehand, white wine with the fish, red wine with the meat, Madeira with dessert and brandy with the coffee. Oblivious of the fact that everyone present was now a binge drinker, we passed on to the port. And some of us were only 18.

Looking back at my lifestyle in England I suspect there were long periods when I had a “binge” every night. I doubt if I ever went down to the pub and had less than three pints of bitter, which would be more than equivalent to five of the “sex in a canoe” stuff which comes in cans around here.

I am sure the Anti-cancer Society intends well, but there is something to be said for treading lightly when condemning other peoples’ pleasures for which you have no taste.

Drinking is a certainly potentially dangerous. In excess it can lead to a variety of diseases and also to hazardous behaviour. People need to control themselves.

Liquour section in a supermarket. File Photo: Wikimedia.

On the other hand human beings have been drinking alcoholic drinks for as long as historians can remember. Some of the oldest writings are lists of wine jars. Yet we are not extinct.

The question about risky activities is not just are they risky, but is the risk worth it? People like to drink. It brings pleasure to hard lives. As the old Irish song puts it “It makes me feel content and happy.”

So drinking is dangerous. Crossing the road is dangerous, Living is dangerous.

As an old German poem put it (translation by Bernard Levin)

If you smoke and if you drink

Life is shorter than you think.

If such things are not your game

You will snuff it just the same.

People vary greatly in their enthusiasm, and ability to digest, alcohol. They also vary in their appetite for risks. More information is always a good thing, as long as it’s accurate. But lay off the propaganda please.

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.