spiritsNEWS December 2021

Editorial by Ulrich Adam, Director General of spiritsEUROPE

Policy slogans referring to all sorts of zero targets or zero risk approaches are incredibly popular these days. Last week, the European Parliament’s Special Committee on Beating Cancer (BECA) joined the club by adopting an amendment which refers to a report mentioning the broad claim ‘that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption when it comes to cancer prevention’.

There are reasons why zero-risk slogans are so attractive today. Policy-making in the age of social media and Twitter is one of them. Zero-risk rhetoric is catchy, highly memorable, and emotionally appealing. Moreover, zero-risk language makes policies look focused, ambitious, and action-driven. Alas, such first impressions would seem to hide some of the deeper – and uglier– truths about what zero risk approaches fundamentally are: vague, overly simplistic and – ultimately – misleading.  

It is hard to deny that a rigorously applied zero-risk approach is unfeasible for most, if not all, aspects in human life. Once you start zooming in on a particular risk in isolation the human activity related to it can no longer be considered risk-free – it is really as simple as that. In that sense, the no-safe-level label is a methodological trick that can easily be applied to anything in human life: there is no safe level of sports because risk of injury will remain (or augment, as in the case of, let’s say, wingsuit diving). There’s no safe level of reading when it comes to optimal eyesight protection (you may want to carry on regardless…). And when it comes to traffic accident prevention, there is no safe level for moving around in a car. However, as David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, explains: ‘There is no safe level of driving, but governments do not recommend that people avoid driving. Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.’

Spiegelhalter makes two fundamentally important points about the inherent fallacies of the no-safe-level approach. Firstly, when applied in isolation and with rigorous zeal, a no-safe-level approach is always a dead-end, tantamount to killing ourselves prophylactically for fear of death. Consequently, and contrary to what it seems to suggest, a ‘no-safe-level’ label can and must not mean to abstain from the actual activity in question. However, this means the no safe level approach cannot provide meaningful answers to the central question of policymakers: since we cannot (and shouldn’t even try to) eliminate the particular activity in question, how can we better understand and manage the risks surrounding it and how can we reduce the potential harm resulting from it?

Put simply, for proper risk assessment and effective harm reduction policies, it’s best to get rid of no-safe level thinking first. Harm reduction involves informing people how to assess and mitigate risk, while acknowledging the real-world conditions that may lead them to take those risks. In the particular case of alcohol consumption, the best evidence shows that light to moderate consumption can be part of a balanced lifestyle, while most risks and harm accrues from drinking at higher risk levels.

Instead of touting lofty no-safe level slogans, the European Parliament’s report on Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan should rather focus on developing robust strategies that are proven to curb the harmful consumption of alcohol and help achieve the planned target of a reduction of 10% in the harmful consumption of alcohol by 2025.

In the light of this, we call on all Members of the European Parliament to abandon the ‘no safe level’ slogan reference and amend the report during the plenary vote scheduled for February 2022.

Ulrich Adam, Director General*

*In his capacity as permanent representative of SPRL ADLOR Consulting

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