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Keywords:

  • alcohol;
  • drinking;
  • moderation;
  • expertise;
  • evidence;
  • science;
  • uncertainty;
  • precaution

Abstract

Public discourse and public policy relating to alcohol tend to concentrate on the social problem of ‘excessive’ drinking. Rather than concentrating on forms of ‘excess’, this paper investigates its counter-point, moderation, which, in regards to alcohol consumption, is a poorly understood concept. Official definitions of moderate drinking vary considerably between different countries and change across time. These fluid definitions are often connected to political or moral values, including temperance in the nineteenth century and personal responsibility today. This situation is complicated by the blurry nature of scientific evidence on the relationship between alcohol consumption and various forms of harm. There is an absence of compelling evidence about what amount or form of drinking can be considered responsible, safe or engendering an acceptable level of risk. In current understandings, risk cannot be precisely calculated or expressed on an individual basis and, hence, scientific discourse offers little certainty. Concentrating on the interpretation of evidence and the role of expertise, this article examines how experts and policy-makers arrive, nonetheless, at definitions of moderate drinking as well as policies that seek to promote them. It is argued that this process circumvents rather than confronts uncertainty and hence is damaging to both scientific validity and governmental credibility.