Measure for measure

The UK government uses legless stats to try to warn us off the demon drink.

Jamie Douglass

Topics Politics

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You could be forgiven, should you read the newspapers, for thinking that Britain is in the grip of a Hogarthian booze-fuelled nightmare.

Gangs of bevvied thugs stumble the streets, eyeing pedestrians as the lion does the gazelle, slurring mothers dash mewling babes headfirst on to stolly-soaked cobbles, while A&E Departments across the country groan under the collective weight of a million limp-limbed inebriates. We’re all going to hell in a brewer’s dray and it’s time for the government to step in.

There’s no denying that Britain has some form of collective drinking problem. According to research by the Institute of Alcohol Studies, Britons ‘binge drink’ more than any other European country – indeed, 40 per cent of all drinking occasions (for men) are a ‘binge’, compared to 33 per cent in Sweden, our leading competitor (1). But this research is not quite as revealing as it appears. Given that there is no international gold-standard as to what constitutes a ‘binge’, and that the UK minimum definition is ‘more than six units of alcohol on a single occasion’ (to put that in perspective, that’s two pints of Stella), it could be that we lag significantly behind other countries.

However, nearly six-and-a-half million Britons drink at what are defined as ‘harmful levels’ – 35 units a week for women, 50 for men – and six million report binge drinking. Almost three million people in the UK are dependent upon alcohol, and we drink over eight litres of pure ethanol per capita in a year. Indeed, we now apparently drink 121 per cent more than we did in 1951 (2). Binge drinking, so says the prime minster’s Strategy Unit, costs the UK £20billion a year. Blimey.

There is a small problem with these figures, though. Firstly, in terms of alcohol consumed per head in Europe, the same report puts Britain in twelfth place, with the party animals of Luxembourg hogging the top spot (3). So it’s not as if Britons are hopeless dipsomaniacs – either we drink in bursts or perhaps we have a skewed view of what constitutes ‘harmful’.

Then there are those ‘costs’. How, exactly, do they break down? Well, the cost to the NHS in patching up the over-indulgent is around £1.7billion. Another £7.3billion is frittered away through alcohol-related crime, assault and disorder. The remaining £11billion goes on ‘lost productivity through absences and illness’ and ‘some of the human and social costs’. Hang on there, Sir Humphrey. Not only is that one of the most nebulous explanations ever for having misplaced 11 billion notes, it also ignores the staggering amount of tax paid on alcohol to offset those costs.

Oh, and lest you thought those NHS figures were conservative, they included the cost of treating everything from nine types of cancer to hypertension. And GP consultations. And laboratory tests, any further shortfall made up – pun implied if not intended – through ‘other health care costs’. In fact, it would seem that if a patient ever cast a sidelong glance at a bottle of nail polish then it was alcohol wot done it.

And what about those absences? The figures might be a little more credible if the report did not contain the rider that ‘there is no indication as to how alcohol consumption relates to sickness absence. In fact there are no data currently collected on the number of days of sickness absence related to the use of alcohol for Britain or the UK as a whole’. Oops. The phrase that comes to mind is not so much ‘rigorous analysis’ as ‘eeeny meeny miney mo’. Perhaps not so much a demand for legislation as, well, an excuse.

Any examination of the government anti-binge campaigns shows a disturbingly blitzkrieg approach to justification. Originally, the recommended levels were 21 units weekly for men and 14 for women. When it became apparent that these figures applied only in the Mormon State of Utah and Noddyland, they were raised to 28 and 21 respectively. Then research by a team at University College London concluded that drinking half a bottle of wine a day (31 units a week) was not only not bad for you, but actively good for the brain (4). And so the emphasis shifted.

The latest bit of pseudo-science aims to hit women where it hurts most: Binge Drinking Will Make You Ugly. The Portman Group-backed campaign warns that drinking ‘dehydrates the skin’, ‘results in broken veins’, causes ‘loss of beauty sleep’ and – best of all – warns women that drinking can leave them with ‘blood-shot eyes and smelling of alcohol’ (5). They may as well have said it gives you warts. Bombarded by spurious statistics and quack science as we are, it will be surprising if this campaign makes one iota of difference.

Whither next? Home secretary David Blunkett has announced that it is time for his favourite solution: a Crackdown. The crosshairs are sighted on underage drinkers, misbehaving pubs, errant off-licenses, the publicly intoxicated, anti-social drinkers and Uncle Thomas Cobleigh et al. Over the summer, 1900 people were served with on-the-spot fines for alcohol-related disorder, and 4000 people had their alcohol confiscated. The Association of Chief Police Officers branded the results ‘disturbing’ (6). I agree. Though probably not for the same reasons.

This is not the first attempt to exorcise the demon drink. The British Association for the Promotion of Temperance was formed in 1835, and campaigned against alcohol for many of the same reasons as the home secretary does now. They cited its high cost in financial and human terms, the tendency of drinkers to violence, the dangers to health, and the links between alcohol and loss of virtue – particularly in young women. Of course in modern times such mutton-chopped morality can hardly be employed, but the message remains the same: drinking will get you puking, punched, poor and pregnant.

Unfortunately, taking away the moral element of the campaign has removed much of its impetus. At least the Temperance movement had God on its side – always handy in a fight – and could advance in the name of all that was Right and Good. Their descendants have been left in a quandary. The ‘ladette’ culture so often blamed for female binge drinking is the accidental pregnancy of emancipation. Why shouldn’t the girls go out, get lathered, and score? The lads do. And trying to convince young men that a good piss-up is harmful is a lost cause.

But the bogeymen of social disorder and destruction remain. If drinking is no longer a ‘vice’, then it must have other drawbacks. You might not arouse the wrath of the divine, but you will suffer the consequences. It’s bad for your skin. But good for your brain and heart, apparently. Drinking will make you an ugly intellectual. Or a varicose vamp. Damn it, it must do something…mustn’t it?

No wonder that responsibility is being tossed hither and yon like so many scalding spuds. The brewing industry is, after all, a business and it is naive to blame it for doing a good job. Asking brewers to take responsibility for people misusing their product is like demanding that BP apologise for every petrol bomb thrown in a riot. The government simultaneously rakes in duty profits and moans at the cost of so much drink leaving the shelves. And telling the voters that it’s their fault they drink so much might be a little counter-productive. It must be alcohol’s fault.

In fact, the roots of modern drinking culture owe much to the fact that alcohol is a drug like any other. Drinking may have regained the ground it lost in the club culture of the 1990s, but the way people drink has changed: alcohol has become simply another alternative in the pharmacopoeia available to pleasure-seeking youth. While ethanol is now top dog of recreational substances, it has become a means to an end. The problem is not sharing a homely pint with the collie at the Smirking Ploughman, but the shooters, slammers, shockers, screamers and endless bottles of caffeine-jacked E-number fests designed to get you in the mood to party without all that tedious ingestion. And now that people have been persuaded that a legal, taxed drug is a better deal than those pills they were chugging down last century, we’ve found a whole new host of problems.

Britain does have some form of drinking problem. However, this owes more to cultural shift than to a resurgence of the gin-drenched squalor of Restoration grotesque. The problem is not that alcohol is too cheap, but that people wish to become intoxicated, rather than pleasantly drunk.

Ultimately, binge drinking is no more than another straw doll. If people wish to become oblivious to the world on a Friday night, then it might be more productive to wonder why than to become ever more draconian in attempts to stop them. In the meantime, perhaps the government should finally make good on their promises about 24-hour licensing, to at least end the culture of downing the dregs come 11.15. Time to call time on calling time, you might say.

But this is not the issue. It is hard to see the latest crusade as anything more than an attempt to further regulate social behaviour, according to what is defined as ‘acceptable’ at Labour HQ. Britain’s drinking problem is the latest in a list of excuses for prescriptive limitations on society. By God, but we will not stop until all England is clean of lung and limb, well-behaved and -spoken, and greets the day with a fresh face and a cheery smile.

It’s enough to drive a man to drink.

Jamie Douglass carried out postgraduate research into youth subculture at the University of Cambridge, and is currently an intern at spiked.

(1) Binge Drinking: Nature, Prevalence and Causes: IAS Fact Sheet

(2) Strategy Unit Alcohol Harm Reduction Project: Interim Analytical Report

(3) Alcohol Misuse: How Much Does It Cost?, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, September 2003

(4) Alcohol Sharpens your brain, say Researchers, Daily Telegraph, 1 August 2004

(5) Binge Drinking warning for Women, Daily Mail, 26 August 2004

(6) Drink Yob Blitz Sparks Fine Rise, BBC News Online, 5 August 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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