Swindon and its environs have several claims to fame, from yielding James Bond creator Sir Ian Fleming to creating what is surely the world’s most complex roundabout.

The smallish market town has produced Dr Who star Billie Piper, smashed the sack race world record and been immortalised in The Office thanks to Neil and his dreaded Swindon lot. But it has another impressive accolade: the lowest mortality rate for cardiovascular disease in the UK. 

It is home to Dr Bill McCrea, a cardiologist who prescribes red wine to his patients in a bid to ward off strokes and heart attacks, arguing that moderate alcohol consumption is extremely beneficial to health. He came up with the idea after noting that the French, who regularly consume a moderate amount of vin rouge, suffer fewer cardiovascular diseases than the British, despite a fattier diet full of cheese and croissants, and higher smoking rates. He believes the antioxidants found in red wine can dramatically slash the chances of stroke and heart attack. He has prescribed red wine to more than 10,000 patients, and it is distributed like any other medicine. 

“If they have coronary artery disease they are prescribed one to two glasses of wine,” he says. “If you get a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon you are on a winner as the skin is high in antioxidants. Other grapes with a high antioxidant content are Pinot Noir and Shiraz. Merlot and Sangiovese are very mediocre in antioxidant content.”

McCrea was pleased to learn that Shiraz has just overtaken Merlot as the UK’s favourite red wine variety, according to Nielsen data. He juggles his cardiology work with a role as the frontman of a band called the Heart Throbs, which raises money for the British Heart Foundation, and he still finds time to serve as a director at newly formed group Drinkers’ Voice. 

McCrea was inspired to join the group in a bid to promote greater balance in the public debate around alcohol and health. “There’s a message getting out, whether it’s intentional or not, that alcohol is bad for you, which is rubbish,” he says. “It’s crazy. We want to promote healthy alcohol consumption. I am very disappointed by the Chief Medical Office guidelines. I have a fear that people are just going to ignore them.”

The doctor wants to help foster a Mediterranean-style approach to alcohol consumption in the UK, whereby moderate amounts of wine are enjoyed with food. “Alcohol seems to prevent the absorption of cholesterol at the gut interface,” he says. “We are going to balance the messages on alcohol. We don’t want people to feel guilty that they drink a glass of wine a day. 

“The culture around alcohol in Britain is not a good one. It’s not a healthy culture. This comes up abroad, people just expect Brits to come and get plastered. 

“This has led to a bad public image of alcohol and it has prompted people who see these effects to have a licence to discourage people from consuming alcohol in moderation. We want to make the point that alcohol in moderation can be good for your health. 

“There’s a lot of research to show this. There’s a slight increase in some cancers, but this is more than balanced by the lesser risk of cardiovascular diseases such as strokes and heart attacks.”

Stricter punishments

But he adds: “We want the government to have stricter punishments for people being drunk and disorderly in the streets. The courts need to be stricter on abuse of alcohol in public. The government needs to encourage safe drinking and also a continental-style approach to drinking. There also needs to be more education on what a unit of alcohol actually is. Even doctors get it wrong. The government should be directing its efforts towards greater public education.”

McCrea is joined on the Drinkers’ Voice board by Richard Harding, a member of the Sensible Drinking Group that produced UK drinking guidelines in 1995. They stated that men could safely drink 21 units per week, and women should stick to 14, but in 2016 the chief medical officer dropped the guidelines from 21 to 14 for men. That left the UK with one of the lowest recommended upper limits for alcohol consumption by men in the world. In Spain, for instance, men are advised they can enjoy 35 units of alcohol per week.

Campaigner Chris Snowdon has since exposed Public Health England for pressuring Sheffield University’s Alcohol Research Group to change its model to massage evidence used to push through the reduction in drinking guidelines. Harding is “appalled by the disparity between the 1995 decision and the current guidelines”.

Rachel Auty, Colin Valentine, Greg Rycroft and John Duffy are all also on the board, bringing different skills, and it is still being built up. Byron Davies, a former MP for Gower and an ex-Metropolitan Police officer, is the chairman.

Drinkers’ Voice was set up last year to give drinkers a representation in the national media, and it is still in the process of recruiting spokespeople across the UK. It has just one employee, Amy O’Callaghan, who says: “We want more honesty in the debate about alcohol and health and wellbeing, because it’s predominantly led by the anti-alcohol lobby, which is motivated to increase the price of alcohol, reduce its availability, and demonise it. 

“We want people to be better informed. It’s our mission to build a resource hub, to translate complex studies into layman’s terms. The Portman Group and Alcohol Information Partnership are good, but they are industry funded and it’s difficult for them in terms of what they can say.”

For Drinkers’ Voice to be effective, it cannot be industry funded, as that would provide the neo-temperance movement with ammunition to discredit it. However, that presents a challenge for the group in terms of raising the necessary funds to operate. “We don’t want to be industry funded, but it’s difficult to explain to people that if they give us money, 10 years down the line there won’t be plain packaging or alcohol won’t be restricted,” says O’Callaghan. “That’s a hard conceptual thing to say. We want to cover one salary and some money for materials. We only need around £70,000 a year. We need to get in front of more audiences.”

Maintaining independence

When asked if there is any way people in the trade can help, she says: “The reality is that if somebody who works in the industry wants to give us money from their own pocket we will accept that, but if they want to give it from their business we will say no. Some businesses offered us money and we had to push back. Not being industry funded adds a lot of weight to our reputation. We need to maintain independence.”

Around 600 people have already supported the organisation, and McCrea is not the only doctor to get involved. “Lots of doctors are really supportive,” says O’Callaghan. “The CMO guidelines frustrate doctors because they have to tell their patients something they don’t believe in. I have been contacted by 12 doctors who say it’s outrageous.”

The group has had success in gaining column inches in the national press and slots on television, but it will have to fold if it cannot raise enough money. When asked what sort of risk would be presented by the group ceasing to operate, O’Callaghan says: “Without consumers involved, you just continue to have this intellectual debate between professors. If consumers are not engaged and involved in the conversation, policy happens to them without them being part of that decision.

“The industry obviously can’t really say much about alcohol and health, and it doesn’t. The anti-alcohol lobby is well organised. In 10 years’ time a new health minister comes in and they have decades of submissions from the anti-alcohol lobby, and without the Drinkers’ Voice there will be nothing to counter it. They will have a big pile on their desk from the anti-alcohol lobby and not much on the other side.  

“People are really interested in what we are saying, because we speak in a different language to the people usually commenting. We have regular people holding down day jobs. We want to speak to as many people as possible about the truth of it. Speak in layman’s terms, not in research journal language, to get people to better understand a healthy relationship with alcohol.”

Another fear O’Callaghan has is certain factors within the industry failing to mobilise against the anti-alcohol lobby because they feel they are not in its firing line. “The wine people are saying, we are fine, they are going for spirits. Spirits people are saying, it’s not us, it’s beer and cider,” she says. “The anti-alcohol people don’t care what it is people are drinking. If it’s alcohol, it’s alcohol. They will demonise it all. There needs to be a more united front.”