The government acts as if booze is the root cause of all our social problems, says Leah McLaren, but it’s not. Drinking is an important part of British culture, the pub is the hub of the community, and health warnings can even be counterproductive
‘No drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we’re looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn’t test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.’
— P.J. O’Rourke
Happy new year! But don’t pass the bubbly. Haven’t you heard? We are all in danger of losing our souls to the demon liquor. According to the government, alcohol expands your liver, distends your pancreas and turns your brainstem to jelly. It makes you gamble and stumble and sleep with women who aren’t your wife. It’s highly addictive, full of harmful nitrates and the latest craze among schoolchildren aged four to six. Rampant swilling explains why the NHS is overburdened, unemployment is high and Gordon Brown looks so exhausted. It makes poor people beat their babies to death and rich people put money in hedge funds.
And you wouldn’t want that, would you?
There is a hopeless war being waged in Britain today, one that costs hundreds of millions of pounds and endangers the social lives of countless innocent young men and women — and that is the war against alcohol.
Everywhere you looked this holiday season there were ominous signs that the booze-induced apocalypse was nigh. ‘Binge-drinking increases risk of dementia,’ the Guardian primly tut-tutted. ‘Ladette drinking violence soars by 300 per cent,’ shrieked the Mail. There were posters on the tube and in pub toilets featuring pretty youngsters out on the town, urging us to ‘know our limits’, the presumption being that we might end up having fun like the models in the photo.
I don’t blame the public for being scared. The official government statistics are alarming. Over ten million Britons — that’s one in four adults — are apparently putting their health in serious danger by drinking too much. The government, not surprisingly, is leading the charge against over-imbibing. Just recently the health minister condemned alcohol consumption as ‘one of the most challenging public health issues we face’.
In the past few months, the British Medical Association has called for an official ban on all alcohol advertising and an end to two-for-one deals in shops. At the same time, the Drinkaware Trust, an organisation funded by alcohol producers and retailers like Tesco and Waitrose (no doubt hoping to lay claim to that most elusive and government-appeasing of titles, ‘corporate responsibility’) has launched its latest campaign, a £100 million drive to ‘highlight the dangers of alcohol misuse through innovative and challenging campaigns online, in print and in communities countrywide’.
The Drinkaware website, which offers grants of £100,000 to members of the public for awareness-raising ‘big impact’ schemes, also features hilarious tips on ‘alcohol-reduced dating and dinner parties’ (hint: serve water) and how to manage your alcohol intake post-redundancy by starting your day with a brisk walk and eating lots of bananas. In addition to providing excellent comic entertainment, Drinkaware is also an example of the nanny state in its most patronising, seemingly well-intentioned glory.
The problem is, none of it will work because the ‘misuse’ of alcohol isn’t nearly as bad as the government or the corporate do-gooders would have us believe. If anything, the puritanical anti-drinking movement will simply convince the majority to have less fun while exacerbating the problem that does exist, i.e. it will make the serious drunks drink more. Because guess what? A true alcoholic doesn’t care that living at the bottom of a Smirnoff bottle is unhealthy, any more than Tiger Woods worried that a certain string of Vegas party girls were not his wife.
Repeat after me: My name is Britain, and I am not an alcoholic.
Go ahead, crack open another bottle of wine and drown out the government’s fear-mongering. The truth is, the overwhelming majority of Britons drink regularly and responsibly, and it’s a good thing too, because we’re all the better for it. That’s right: Drinking is good for us. And I don’t just mean half a glass of organic Cabernet with dinner twice a week, either. In fact, there is plenty evidence to suggest that regular, habitual drinking of the type the government would classify as ‘heavy’ and ‘hazardous’ is significantly beneficial or at the very least without discernible risks.
Guidelines on unit measurements as well as recommended daily alcohol intake levels vary widely from country to country, with ‘episodic’ drinking cultures like America and Britain tending towards more draconian rules than more moderate ‘continuous’ drinking cultures such as France. This means that a consumption level that might get you classified as a dangerous, dependent drinker here or in America makes you a normal, healthy person in much of continental Europe.
As social health issues go, it is hard to find a debate more fraught than the one over alcohol and pregnancy. For centuries, pregnant women were encouraged by doctors and midwives to drink occasional, moderate amounts of alcohol in Britain, and no widespread epidemic of fetal alcohol syndrome ensued. Yet what does the government recommend a pregnant woman drinks today? Absolutely nothing. Those women who do allow themselves a glass of wine with dinner in the third trimester are, by the government’s standard, selfish, decadent sluts who think nothing of endangering their unborn child.
Strangely enough, this cultural shift flies in the face of recent scientific evidence. The amount of research to suggest that regular drinking has health benefits (particularly for the heart) is far higher than the number of studies that suggest the opposite. In fact, a recent Spanish study published in the respected cardiology journal Heart concluded that in men between the ages of 29 and 69 ‘alcohol intake was associated with a more than 30 per cent lower incidence of coronary heart disease’.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting anyone kill a Texas mickey a day in the hope of fending off a stroke, but the study does offer some solace for those of us who, like me, have spent years feeling guilty about splitting a bottle of wine with a companion most nights over dinner. According to the government guidelines, this makes me a raging alcoholic on the verge of liver failure. But according to Professor David Hanson, a sociologist at New York State University and an expert in the sociology of drink, the UK government stats on what comprises unhealthy are wildly exaggerated.
‘There is this idea that almost any alcohol is bad and it’s moving very quickly across Europe,’ he says of the recent spate of anti-binge-drinking campaigns sweeping Britain and continental Europe. ‘You’ve got this idea that alcohol is poison and that we need to reduce consumption and that will solve all our social problems. That simply doesn’t bear out historically. In the United States, for instance, prohibition actually introduced the practice of heavy drinking by making liquor an illicit substance.’
Moreover, he points out, these campaigns may well have the opposite of their desired effect, since ‘by exaggerating the problem they inadvertently add to it because they create the misconception that everyone else is doing it, thus making it seem normal’.
But perhaps the most tragically misguided aspect of the government’s current stance on alcohol is the way it overlooks the true cultural benefits of drink and drinking.
the neighbourhood pubs to the wine-fuelled picnics to the dying tradition of the liquid lunch, this country is defined — for better or for worse — by its insatiable thirst. Indeed, without the inhibition-reducing properties of alcohol, Britain would lose most of its cultural influence. Almost all of this country’s great exports have been unapologetic boozers. From Kate Moss to Francis Bacon to Christopher Hitchens to the Queen Mum, Brits have a great tradition of not letting their functional alcoholism drag them down. Without it, arguably, we would not have punk rock, romantic poetry or basic democratic freedoms — for as Churchill urged us to remember, he ‘took more out of alcohol’ than alcohol took out of him.
If prohibition was instituted in this country tomorrow, dancefloors would empty out, small talk would be replaced by awkward silence and the birth rate would plummet. Even more alarmingly, ratings for the X-Factor would dry up (who could bear to watch it sober?), Lily Allen would stop tweeting, Tracey Emin would make her bed and Amy Winehouse would have nothing to write songs about. In short, it would be a disaster.
As a culture, Britain is certainly alcohol dependant. But if it’s not dangerous, why fight it? The French have cheese, the Italians have sex, the Chinese have work, the Americans have optimism and on this soggy little island, we have a stiff drink at the end of the day. Where’s the shame in that?
Which brings us back to the pub, Britain’s finest institution. And I don’t mean the fancy, minimalist, martini-and-risotto-serving kind. I mean the sort of dark, cosy little place where toothless men wander in with dead game slung over their shoulder and a lone woman can get safely buzzed on local stout while reading a book by the fire. In other words, the tradition village boozer.
The English pub is, alas, a dying breed. According to the latest industry estimates, pubs are closing at the rate of 26 per week – just under half in London. Surprising news in a country that is also apparently in the throes of collective liquor-fuelled rampage.
While this trend has obviously been bad news for small business owners, there are broader cultural ramifications as well.
‘When I started going out drinking you did it locally. You’d go to the pub with your dad and have a drink with your neighbours, but now there’s a whole generation of people under 30 who don’t have the relationship with the pub,’ laments Yorkshire publican Jay Smith, who also happens to be the host of Save Our Boozer, a show that helps rural English communities restore their communities’ pubs through volunteer efforts.
The death of the pub results in a culture where young people drink discounted liquor in big nightclubs surrounded by strangers. The local pub might well be the government’s best weapon when it comes to getting young people to ‘drink safe’ or ‘know their limits’, for while you might not mind heaving up lunch on the street outside the Honey Club in Brighton, you’re not likely to do the same in front of Aunt Mary.
But is the government helping Jay Smith in his crusade to save the nation’s watering holes? Of course not! ‘The movement against binge drinking has been a great tool for governments to raise alcohol taxes and package it up as a way to tidy up a high street on Friday night in Bristol,’ he says, ‘but the sharp end of this is felt by the small traditional pubs. They can’t afford the increases, it makes their business model unsustainable.’
In other words, the war on drinking is actually helping to create the very problem it aims to eradicate. In marketing terms, this is called ‘creating a need’, and as Professor Hanson points out, when it comes to the war against alcohol, it’s a political sleight of hand governments have been using for years.
So an inflation of the British drinking problem based on scare tactics allows the government and useless public awareness campaigns like Drinkaware to step in and ‘fix’ something that wasn’t exactly broken in the first place. The government looks good, the drunks get drunker, and Joe public is bored but none the wiser.
It’s enough to drive us all to drink.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 2, 2010