Category: Neo-prohibitionism

| Covid, Food, Media bollocks, Neo-prohibitionism, Pubs

Why there’s no point trying to define a “substantial meal.”

As new Covid tier rules in England threaten to decimate the pub industry, there’s no neo-prohibitionist conspiracy here: just an indifferent government that’s too lazy to help.

N.B. Updated 3rd December with new information regarding “contracting arrangements” with food providers for pubs that don’t have a kitchen.

From tomorrow, 32 million people – 56% of the population of England – will be living under Tier 2 restrictions. In this tier, they will be allowed to drink in pubs, but only if they are also eating a “substantial meal”.

This has led to an increasingly entertaining/depressing/frustrating (delete according to how much skin you have in the game) national conversation about what constitutes a “substantial meal.” Government attempts to clarify the rules over the last few days have revealed a shocking lack of thinking behind them.

Most people I’ve seen discussing the issue in both mainstream and social media assume that the rule is in place to discourage immoderate drinking, which could in turn lead to a loss of inhibition and lower willingness to comply with social distancing rules.

That’s a big assumption – when pubs reopened after Lockdown 1 on 4th July, the media universally predicted a wave of drunken behaviour that would lead to a surge in new cases. That wave never materialised. But let’s run with the assumption for a moment.

The Science Bit

Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream slowly from the stomach, and rapidly from the small intestine. Having food in the stomach slows down the passage of alcohol to the small intestine while also allowing enzymes in the stomach more time to break down and deactivate the alcohol. So drinking on a full stomach doesn’t just slow down your alcohol absorption; its means you end up absorbing less alcohol overall.

So there is some logic here: if you believe (despite lack of solid evidence) that drunker people are less likely to observe social distancing and other measures to prevent potential Covid spread, mandating that they can only drink while eating would help reduce – or at least slow down – potential drunkenness.

Getting eggy with it

So how much food do we have to consume to get this effect? Well, this is where it gets complicated. Not to mention utterly ridiculous. Because the government appears to have no idea.

In October, we were told that a Cornish pasty was a substantial meal, but only if you order it with chips or a side salad – as you do. Yesterday, another cabinet minister told us that a Scotch egg counts, only to be swiftly contradicted by the Prime Minister’s office, which was in turn contradicted again by Michael Gove half an hour ago, after I had already started writing this. Evidently, the government cannot agree on what is and is not a substantial meal.

Another problem is, what’s substantial for one person is different for another. I have friends who would be full after one Scotch egg, and others who could eat a platter full. The amount of food needed in the stomach to slow down the absorption of alcohol varies from person to person.

If we were looking for an average though, let’s say we were to split the calorific difference between a Scotch egg (around 300-340 calories) and a Cornish pasty (700-900 calories) we might get to, say, an average of 500 calories (a Ploughman’s or a cheese and tuna panino, but not a chicken fajita wrap) as the boundary between what’s substantial and what’s not.

But we’d be wasting our time.

The reason it doesn’t make sense is that it’s got nothing to do with the size of the meal

As pub operators have asked for clarification, more rules have been made up – sorry, made clear.

Firstly, you can’t have another drink after you’ve finished eating. This makes no sense at all. You can order your first drink when you order your food. You can also presumably order more drinks while you’re waiting for your food to be delivered to the table. These drinks will, by definition, be drunk on an empty stomach, the alcohol flowing straight into your small intestine and from there into your bloodstream within minutes. But once you’ve finished eating – when your stomach is at its fullest and therefore when you will absorb alcohol at the slowest rate – you’re not allowed to drink alcohol any more. Notwithstanding the fact that eating a meal can break down a small amount to the alcohol already in your system (but not enough to make much difference) this makes nonsense of the idea that these measures will have any effect in reducing the drunkenness that arguably wasn’t going to be there to begin with.

Secondly, it seems the calories are only substantial if they come from the pub’s own kitchen. Wet-led pubs that have takeaway menus allowing you to order from nearby pizzerias or chips shops have been informed that these meals don’t count. Neither are you allowed to take your own packed lunch to the pub, no matter how substantial it is.

One bit of good news, however, is that, despite some contradictory messages over the last week or so, the official guidelines state that “pubs that don’t normally do food may enter into a contracting arrangement in order that they are able to do so and remain open.” There’s no detail offered beyond that, and I’ve heard that some taprooms have been told the money must got through the pub’s till rather than the food provider’s, but with a bit of jiggling, it looks like, for example, tap rooms that have arrangements with food trucks could remain open.

The “substantial meal” rule has absolutely nothing to do whatsoever with slowing the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. Trying to define what counts as “substantial” via calorie counting or physical volume – as a reasonable person would – is a waste of time because it is absolutely irrelevant to the definition of a substantial meal. The Scotch egg thing is simply a side-show.

You know perfectly well what the rules are

Obviously then, many pubs set to enter Tier Two have been seeking clarification on what is going on – only to be told they already know. This was a consistent line across several interviews yesterday, when ministers were asked what constitutes a substantial meal.

“There is, to be serious, there is a well-understood definition of what a substantial meal is,” said Michael Gove, seconds after demonstrating that this was emphatically not the case, in what is sure to become known as #ScotchEggGate. The PM’s spokesman with whom he was disagreeing also insisted that “Bar snacks do not count as a substantial meal… It’s well-established in the hospitality industry what does.”

As confused publicans urgently seek clarification in order to determine whether they can reopen or not in Tier Two, desperately trying to avoid breaking the rules if they decide to, the government’s response is basically that old stereotype of a passive aggressive argument in a relationship:

“What’s wrong? Why are you angry?”

“You know why.”

“No I don’t. What have I done?”

“You know very well what you’ve done.

“If I knew, I won’t be asking, would I?”

The pub industry is asking what constitutes a substantial meal, only to be told it knows perfectly well what a substantial meal is, even though the government can’t agree with itself on what counts as a substantial meal.

This is not a stereotype from a relationship. This is not the argument you had with your little brother when you were twelve. This is the British government, guiding the country through a pandemic while trying not to crash the economy. Makes you want a drink, doesn’t it?

Reading a little more closely though, and we can see not only what they’re talking about, but why.

Are you sitting comfortably?

According to the Covid-19 winter plan, “Venues that serve alcohol can only remain open where they operate as if they were a restaurant, which means serving substantial meals (and accompanying drinks).”

This is where the phrase “substantial meal” comes from. This is why it’s important. It’s got nothing to do with the speed of alcohol absorption; it’s saying effectively that pubs are not allowed to operate as pubs: they are only allowed to operate as if they were restaurants.

The guide goes on to define a substantial meal as “a full breakfast, main lunchtime or evening meal”. Eat your Cornish pasty (with side salad, obvs) between noon and 3pm, and it counts. Between 4pm and 5pm, I’m guessing it doesn’t.

As well as the time of day, the key thing that makes a meal substantial or not is how it is served. When George Eustice was bullshitting on the hoof, what he actually said was, “I think a Scotch egg probably would count as a substantial meal if there were table service.” (my italics).  

This is why bar snacks, packed lunches and takeaways don’t count. If a pub behaves as a restaurant, customers remain seated and have table service on plates (I’m guessing boards, baskets and those wanky miniature shopping trolleys count here too) of food cooked in the restaurant kitchen. As ministers continue their public argument about Scotch eggs, the one thing they’re all consistent on is that it has to be table service. People have to be sitting down and have their food brought to them. The pub must behave as if it were a restaurant.

From this, it seems the “pubs must behave as restaurants” wheeze is all about restricting movement around the pub. That’s fair enough. But before Lockdown 2, pubs were already table service only. If you wanted to move around, you had to put on a mask. If you didn’t have a table, you couldn’t be served. So the substantial meal rule is designed to create a situation that was already in place. Unless there is good reason to believe that the previous regulations were not working – and I’ve not seen anything that suggests they weren’t – the substantial meal rule is not just devastating, not just nonsensical, but also completely unnecessary.

So why is it being introduced?

There have been suggestions of a conspiracy to destroy pubs, driven by the neo-prohibitionists. While I’ve written about their skullduggery many times, I don’t believe they’re behind this. With most conspiracies, where you suspect some secret organisation behind the scenes, it’s really just crap people fucking things up.

As it dishonestly claims to “follow the science,” this government has in reality allowed public opinion to guide its Covid response to a significant degree. The strategy of leaking ideas for Covid measures to mates in the press, and then gauging the response before deciding whether to implement them, is both cowardly and grossly irresponsible, but it has been the consistent strategy of Johnson’s government throughout the pandemic.

We occasionally hear nonsensical sentences like “We’ve got to close pubs to keep schools open,” as if allowing people to go for a pint makes kids more likely to come home with Covid after double maths. What it actually means is that all Covid restrictions are unpopular, but the public will accept some before others. Going to the pub is seen as a luxury – a sin even – especially by people who never go to pubs and have no idea what they’re like. The government has to be seen to do something. And we’ll just about accept pub closures because, despite my protestations to the contrary, it does make logical sense to some people that we might behave more irresponsibly after a drink (but not if we buy it from Tesco of course.)

The substantial meal rule came in simply because it sounds like a tough restriction, one that seems to make sense, even though the logic we all might assume actually has nothing to do with the decision. The lazy-arsed thinking behind such a cynical move also led to them to not think it through properly, and not bother to come up with a coherent set of answers to questions people were obviously going to ask.

That’s the problem with being lazy – you just create more work for yourself down the line.

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| Alcohol, Media bollocks, Neo-prohibitionism

Are we really drinking ourselves silly through lockdown?

Quick answer: No.

Image sourced from Google and labelled as rights cleared for use.

I pitched this piece to a couple of newspapers yesterday. For some reason, they declined it.

With headlines like these:

You could be forgiven for thinking that sales of alcohol have jumped significantly during lockdown. Commentators across the political spectrum have expressed concern that we are drinking more than we did as we shield from Covid-19.

There’s just one problem: It’s not true.

Sales in the off-trade (corner shops, supermarkets and off-licences) are audited differently from sales in the on-trade (pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels.) They are reported separately. Every single time someone reports that drinks sales are up in March or April, they are looking at figures that only cover the off-trade. They completely ignore the on-trade, which was shut down on 20th March, and was already trading significantly down by then as fears of Covid-19 took root. The complete closure of pubs came several days after Boris Johnson told people not to go to pubs or bars, but fo some reason allowed them to stay open.

Last week, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) released net figures for beer sales. As you’d expect, the off-trade is significantly up: total take-home beers sales were 10.6% higher in March 2020 than they were in March 2019, with premium lager being the biggest driver.

But beer sales through pubs, bars and restaurants were calamitously down across the board, with a net decline of 39.5% versus last year. Sales for April 2020 will of course be down 100% versus last year.

The on-trade currently accounts for just under half of all drinks consumption – or it used to. So add the two together, and you get an overall decline in beer sales of 12.7% in March 2020 versus March 2019.

I haven’t seen a single media report quoting this figure.

I haven’t seen stats for wine or spirits – these are more focused towards take-home but will surely follow the same pattern.

Since lockdown began, every pint in a pub, every sandwich from Pret, every burger from McDonalds, every meal or glass of wine in a decent restaurant, has had to be replaced by food and drink at home. There seems to be a general understanding of this in every area apart from alcohol sales, where we suddenly forget that pubs ever existed and assume that the only reason off-trade sales are rising is problem drinking. I have yet to see a serious article suggesting that we are binge eating ourselves to death, or developing a worrying obsession with baking, or becoming dangerously addicted to doing jigsaws (sales of jigsaws and board games soared a worrying 240% during the first week of lockdown alone.)

Overall retail sales may have collapsed, but in the run-up to lockdown we spent an extra £2billion in supermarkets as we stocked up, making March 2020 the busiest month on record for supermarket sales. When the same newspapers who are worried that we are drinking ourselves through lockdown report on overall supermarket sales, they rightly explain that we are stocking up because we are confined to our homes, and buying more food because we can’t go to restaurants, cafes or sandwich shops.

Even if we were buying more, does buying more mean we’re drinking more? Not necessarily. But there’s drinking and there’s drinking. Another news story over the weekend:

cites a survey that explored people’s alcohol consumption during lockdown. The Guardian report falsely claims that “Alcohol sales in Britain were 30% higher than usual in March,” and bases its claim that “problem drinking is soaring” on the fact that 20% of people say they are drinking more than usual during lockdown.

The thing is, if you read on, the same reports also says that a third of people – a far bigger number – are drinking less during lockdown, or have stopped altogether. Again, this doesn’t seem to have made the headlines anywhere.

There’s a natural tendency to equate overall drinking with problem drinking. Alcohol abuse strategies in the UK are based on the assumption that if we decrease overall alcohol consumption, we will reduce problem drinking. Statistically, at a population level, this may be true. But it creates the assumption that problem drinking is directly linked to the availability or affordability of alcohol, and this is not true. General population data show that the more affluent you are, the more you drink. But the less affluent you are, the more likely you are to suffer alcohol-related harm.

This is because problem drinking has more to do with the pattern of drinking – what you drink, and how and why – than the overall amount you drink over the long term.

There are more people drinking less than there are people drinking more during lockdown, because for most people, drinking is a sociable activity. I know many people who enjoy a few drinks at the pub but never drink at home, for example. So now the pubs are closed and they’re stuck at home, they don’t drink.

I have no doubt that problem drinking is up – I’m in no place to contradict the health workers who report significant increases in calls for help, and I wouldn’t want to anyway. But problem drinking follows a very different pattern than drinking for most people. As Chair of the British Guild of Beer Writers, you might think “Of course you’d say that.” But as the child of an alcoholic, I know what problem drinking looks like. I grew up with it.

Problem drinking is often secretive. It’s hidden. Alcoholics don’t care how much their poison costs – they’ll simply sacrifice more of anything else to get it, such as spending the family allowance that should have bought new shoes or clothes for the kids on booze instead. In the worst circumstances, if they can’t get booze they’ll drink something else, such as methylated spirits or rubbing alcohol. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that problem drinkers are drinking more during lockdown, because it suits their MO.

And also because they are stressed, nervous and frightened. These are scary times. Any one of us might die of something we can’t see and don’t know enough about. If you problem-drink to alleviate stress or fear, of course you’re going to drink more just now.

But that doesn’t mean we are doing so as a population. We simply aren’t.

Problem drinking is not a drink problem, it’s a mental health problem. And until we talk about it as such, until we stop conflating overall alcohol sales/price/availability with the issues surrounding problem drinking, we are not helping those who need it most.

If you are worried about your own drinking during lockdown, this NHS page gives advice on where to start getting help, and this DrinkAware tool might help you work out if it is becoming a problem.


| Alcohol, BrewDog, Dry January, Neo-prohibitionism

Most People Who Did Dry January Will Have Forgotten It By Now. Here’s Why I Haven’t.

In early March, after a boozy February, I’m hoping that this year will finally see some permanent changes in my drinking habits – after all, it’s never been easier.

For a while back there, I almost didn’t want to start drinking again.

The dramatic fall in my Fitbit’s resting heartbeat rating brooked no argument. It’s never been that low before. I felt fantastic. I’d lost a stone in weight. And thanks to the best range of alcohol-free beers I’ve ever seen, I didn’t often feel like I’d stopped drinking beer.

People can get defensive in conversations about how much you drink. The hysteria and lies from the anti-alcohol lobby represent a gross and disgraceful distortion of the facts surrounding the scale of the problem they supposedly care about, but that doesn’t change the fact that working near alcohol can pose a danger of you don’t stay in control of it. 14 units a week may be an utterly ludicrous weekly ‘guideline’ with no basis whatsoever in fact or research, but that doesn’t change the fact that 100 units a week is too much.

Unlike the lower figure, that higher one is not plucked from thin air with no justification: it’s a figure I exceeded every week when I kept a units diary through November and December. I know various people who won’t keep a diary of their alcohol consumption because they’re too scared to see the results. I’d suggest that’s the best possible reason to keep one.

I’ve written a lot about the pros and cons of Dry January before. I don’t need to justify yet again why I do it, and why I’ve done it for twenty years now. But I thought this year’s observations might be useful.

For most of us, alcohol is largely benign – yes, really. As young adults we experiment, we feel the exhilaration. We go too far. And then, when we get older, we modify. Many people I speak to have kids, and that’s when their consumption falls dramatically. Liz and I never did, and we’re happy with that. Many people find the responsibility of work to be a counter to their drinking. I find work to be an active driver of my drinking.

I love booze and I plan on never giving it up. As I write this, I’m half-cut, in the zone where the typing is sloppy but the words flow freely and I feel the weight in them as I write them, rather than tossing them off casually. I love drinking. I love alcohol. I love it so much that I still drink it like I did when I was in my mid-twenties. I’m now 51, and looking to make some careful changes.

Yeah, so Dry January made me feel fantastic, a much-needed reset, and fuck anyone on either side of the debate around alcohol who has a problem with that.

But this year, I want some of that for the rest of the year too. I have said this before and failed. I don’t want to fail again.

February was booze-soaked and brilliant, but I was alarmed at how shitty the mornings were, remembering the clarity of January. If you’re reading this thinking “I don’t need to do Dry January because I drink in moderation all year round,” good for you – I want to be more like you. But I spend way more of my time in pubs and around beer than you do, and the temptation, the tendency, the titillation, to drink rather than not to drink is there every single day.

That’s why the advent of ranges of beer that taste just like beer but have none of the alcohol has been so brilliant. That’s why I didn’t just get through this year’s Dry January; I actively enjoyed it. And it’s why I hope to take some of the behaviour with me through the rest of the year.

I’ve found that if you can go to a pub and drink something that tastes like a really good beer, by the pint, and it only contains 0.5% alcohol, you still get a social buzz. To those who take to social media to whine defensively that there’s no point drinking beer if you can’t get pissed from it: you’re wrong. All I want from a first pint is the sense of reward, the weight of it in my hand, the coolness spreading through my skin, and then the whiff of hops on the nose before a greedy glug, wondering how much of the pint I’m going to do on one go, the dust-destroying hit of bubbles at the back of the throat, exorcising the stress of the day. If you can deliver that, it doesn’t matter what the ABV is. And given that that pint is getting destroyed in about fifteen minutes, it’s better all round if it’s low ABV.

I now do drink-free days regularly, and I go to the pub anyway. I’ve had a few sessions where I’ve been drinking nothing but AF pints. The buzz, the warmth, the opening up, are all still there. The only difference is, after three pints I feel like I’ve done the evening, got all I want from it, and I go home. When I’m drinking alcohol, this tends to be the point where conversations enter loops. Drunk, or even tipsy, we might enjoy going round them again. Sober, an early night appeals. Both are fine in their own right. Either would get boring for me if that’s all I did.

So I’m writing this in support of AF beer and cider becoming part of my life and yours on a year-round basis. If I could have the nights I had in January three or four nights a week year round, and the nights I used to have all the time before then three or four nights a week year round, that would be perfect. Maybe you do, and I’m happy for you. But if, like me, you spend most of your time in and around pubs and beer, here are five AF drinks that – if you can find them – will give you sober days without making you feel like you’re missing out.

Brooklyn Special Effects

I’ve drunk my body weight in this recently. We ordered it from Ocado by the case when it was on promotion for £1 a bottle. You simply forget you’re not drinking full-strength beer – it tastes better than most 4% or 5% beers I’ve tried recently. A remarkable feat.

BrewDog Hazy AF

Punk AF isn’t bad either. But once you nail the flavour (and lack of off-flavours) in AF beer, the one deficiency most of them still have is that the lack of alcohol makes them feel thin on the palate. The lactose, oats or whatever else brewers add to make hazy beers feel thick and smooth counteracts that here, giving a satisfying mouthfeel as well as a very ‘now’ flavour profile.

Lagunitas Hoppy Refresher

Not a beer at all, but a soda water with the same hop addition they use in Lagunitas IPA. OK, so it’s not available in the UK yet because of cost and price point issues, but I was chugging this every day when I was in California last year and brought bottles back in my case at the expense of leaving some very nice IPAs behind.

Andechs Weissbeer Alcohol Free

See BrewDog Hazy AF above – if you prefer a weissbier to a hazy boi, the same thing applies here – the weight of the body is no different from a normal weissbier, making this feel and taste like there’s no compromise at all. Erdinger AF is not bad, but this one is really, really good. Imported by Euroboozer.

Heineken Zero

I delight in telling my friends at Heineken that this tastes no different from normal full-strength Heineken. They can’t work out whether I’m praising the AF version or dissing the full-strength one. Or both. It’s never going to be a beer you love, but if you find yourself stuck with a mainstream selection, this is a massive improvement on Becks Blue and all the rest.

Honourable mentions also go to Adnams Ghost Ship 0.5%, Thornbridge Zero Five, Lucky Saint, and the whole Big Drop range.

Really good AF drink are still difficult to find – hopefully this will change soon. But if you want to stock up at home, Dry Drinker have the biggest range. If you want to find places that stock decent drinks while you’re out, Club Soda have got your back.

| Media bollocks, Neo-prohibitionism

It’s nearly budget time: cue more neo-prohibitionist nonsense

The press invariably swallows anti-alcohol stories without question. Even when a cursory glance reveals them to be increasingly silly. 

Rule Number One when writing negative stories about alcohol: you MUST always illustrate the story with beer. Here’s the pic the Guardian used for their story on how parent’ drinking is supposedly damaging to kids

Whenever the Institute of Alcohol Studies releases new research on the perils of drink, their findings are usually reported without question by the mainstream press. It’s never ‘the IAS claims this is the case’, just ‘this is the case’.

If the drinks industry said it had overwhelming evidence that drinking is good for you, newspapers would quite rightly report this as ‘the drinks industry claims’ this to be the case, and seek an opposing point of view for balance. They don’t do that with the Institute box Alcohol Studies, because it sounds important and learned. I wonder if things would be different if the IAS still went by its old name, The UK Temperance Alliance?

The Institute of Alcohol Studies, yesterday.

Anyway, we’re getting close to the budget, which means the drinks industry is campaigning for a reduction on alcohol duty, and the Temperance Movement (but please don’t call it that – these days it merely studies alcohol rather than. trying to ban it – honest) is campaigning for more punitive financial penalties on drinkers.

To support its case, the drinks industry points to data showing that the UK had the second highest beer duty in Europe, that Brits drink 12% of all the beer drunk in Europe but pay 40% of all the beer duty. It points out how many jobs the drinks industry creates, how much it contributes to the economy, and how duty increases hurt the industry and put these jobs at risk. It may be a coincidence that the volume of beer sold in the UK plummeted in the years of the Beer Duty Escalator (which saw duty increase automatically by inflation plus 2%), stabilised when the escalator was abolished, and then began falling again when Philip Hammond started to increase duty once more. But I doubt coincidence quite covers it. And I’m sure that’s why the Temperance Movement want drink to be more expensive.

Meanwhile, the Temperance Movement makes its case by producing scary data about the damage that alcohol is causing. But as almost every measure of alcohol related harm in society is in long term decline, they’re struggling harder and harder each year to find something negative to say. Cue last month’s research, reported without question by the Guardian, into the harm caused by parents drinking in front of their children.

According to this exposé:

  • – Three in ten parents have been drunk in front of their children.
  • – Half have been ‘tipsy’.
  • – 15% of children have asked their parents to drink less.
  • – 16% of parents have felt guilty or ashamed of their parenting as a result of their drinking.
  • – 12% of children said their parents paid them less attention because of their drinking.
  • – 29% of parents believe it is acceptable to get drunk in front of their children as long as that does not happen very often.

This behaviour ‘can’ cause children to feel anxious, and have less respect for their parents. But there are no statistics offered to illustrate how serious this might be.

Concerning, right?

Well, let’s take another look.

‘Tipsy’ is different from drunk. There’s a big value judgement being made here that being tipsy is a bad thing. But moderate drinking makes people relaxed and happy, without losing control or becoming embarrassing. Are children who see their parents tipsy as upset by this as those who see their parents drunk? We’re not told. Is ‘tipsy’ being included here simply because the figures for ‘drunk’ are so small, and conflating the two allows the problem to be presented as more serious than it really is? Without seeing the raw data, I couldn’t say. But I’ll just leave the possibility there.

Now let’s get into the detail. I grew up with an alcoholic parent and it’s really not pretty. I’ve also designed research surveys. And if I truly wanted to understand the problems associated with drinking in front of children, if I genuinely wanted to do anything to help the children who are really being hurt by their parent’s behaviour, I’d want to look at the most serious cases. Instead of asking ‘Have you ever been drunk in front of your kids?” I’d be trying to quantify how often this happens by instead asking ‘How often have you been drunk in front of your children?’ And giving an answer grid along the lines of:

  • – Never
  • – Hardly ever – just on one or two occasions
  • – Rarely – maybe once or twice a year
  • – Sometimes
  • – Often

This would allow me to separate families where it’s happened every now and then from those where it’s obviously a habit. I’d zoom in on those who answered ‘sometimes’ and ‘often’, and it’s those parents – and their kids – that I’d want to know more about. I’d want to cut the data so I could compare and contrast the emotions of kids who often saw their parents drunk with the feelings of those where it’s only ever happened once or twice, so I could start to speculate on whether the real harm to kids was the spectacle of ever having seen their parents pissed,  or the regularity of it.

My personal bias: in my experience, it was the fact that it happened every week – the regularity and inevitability of it – that was so upsetting about my alcoholic parent’s behaviour. I only ever saw the other parent drunk once a year at Christmas and I thought it was funny and charming in their case. By contrast, the alcoholic parent’s behaviour made my home feel like a prison. The real hurt – which I certainly felt and which I’ve seen confirmed by many other accounts – is the sense that this parent, given a choice, will always choose alcohol over any concern for their kids. Imagine how that feels, what it does to a child’s self-esteem and sense of worth, compared with ‘Oh mummy/daddy you acted silly last Christmas’. But I guess the distinction between these two effects is not important to the people who claim they are more concerned about alcohol-related harm in society than anyone else. I guess they know better.

(Oh, and for the record: the alcoholic parent never touched beer and wine. I’ve never understood why pictures of spirits feature so seldom in stories about alcohol harm.)

Of course, to go into this kind of detail and distinction would by definition give me a much lower percentage of the total population than if I simply asked ‘Have you ever been drunk in front of the kids?’ Back when I was designing research questionnaires, that’s the question I’d ask if my only intention was to produce the biggest number possible so I could share it to create a media story, rather than digging into the true scale and nature of the problem.

I haven’t seen the study questionnaire. Maybe they did ask a ‘rarely/sometimes/often question. But whether they did or not, the IAS is only reporting the overall number and declining to give any useful textural detail – if there is any. I wonder why?

Whatever was asked, we can only work with the data that’s been reported. And the way this is being positioned is ‘Have you ever been drunk in front of your kids’? Think about that. Think about every year, both mum and dad having a birthday, probably a wedding anniversary, the family experiencing Christmas and New Year, the kickback of a summer holiday. Then think about the likelihood of bereavements, funerals, or the quick fix to cope with stress at work. Think about this over the course of five, ten, fifteen years of parenthood. Take all this into account, look at the question again, and realise that it’s asking  ‘Have you EVER done this, even once, on any of these occasions?’, and then flip the answers around.

Through the entire period of parenthood:

  • – 70% of parents have never been drunk in front of their kids – not once, not at a party, not on their birthday, not at new year – never.
  • – Half of parents have never even been tipsy in front of their kids.
  • – 85% of children have never asked their parents to drink less
  • – 88% of children say their parents have never paid less attention to then because of their drinking.
  • – 84% of parents have never felt guilty or ashamed of their parenting as a result for their drinking.
  • – 71% of parents think it is unacceptable to get drunk in front of their kids, even if its doesn’t happen very often.
  • Doesn’t seem like so much of a crisis now, does it?

If I’d presented these numbers this way around in order to demonstrate that there’s not much of as problem here, doubtless sceptics would point to the numbers and say “Ah, but maybe parents are’t being truthful? Maybe they’re under-claiming?” Well, maybe they are. But when presented the other way around, the IAS and the media clearly felt the numbers were so large as to be a cause for alarm. I’m only working with the IAS’s own data here – data they are presenting as robust and sound – and looking at it in a different way.

Children are an emotive topic in any regard, and are therefore an effective way to get your point across. Not long after this research came out, the latest figures (for 2015) on under-age drinking were released. They show that under-age drinking has fallen to its lowest level since the survey began in 1990. Strangely, the Temperance Movement made no mention of this in their commentary on the figures. Instead, they pointed out that the rate of decline was slowing, and suggested this was a cause for concern, rather than an inevitable slowing given the consistent fall in the numbers meaning there’s a substantially smaller base left for any further reduction to come from.

I have said this before. But if you were genuinely concerned about the harm alcohol cases in society – and make no bones about it, alcohol does cause harm in some places – wouldn’t you celebrate a reduction in that harm instead of deliberately trying to exaggerate the scale of it? And wouldn’t you want to help those most at risk rather than doing your absolute damnedest to make it seem like everyone was at it?

| Alcohol, Neo-prohibitionism, Social Trends

Remembering Lunchtime Drinking

So Lloyds of London announced last week that it is banning its employees from drinking at lunchtime.

Under strict new rules, anyone found to have enjoyed a pint between the hours of 9 to 5 faces the prospect of being fired for ‘gross misconduct.’

Having frequently been in City of London pubs at the same time as some of these often boorish drinkers, my first thought was not to spare them any tears. The move comes in response to 50% of disciplinary incidents at the firm apparently having to do with staff members being over-refreshed.

But whatever your views on our financial colleagues, just let that phrase roll around for a second: drinking alcohol during your lunch break is ‘gross misconduct’. Not getting drunk. Not failing to complete your job because you’re pissed. But having one drink.

This ban is symbolic of the ever tightening stigma of drinking alcohol – and of changing public opinion – and I fear it’s the first of many similar measures to come.


But according to YouGov, Lloyds are in line with public opinion. I guess I’m not.

I started my first job in 1991, at an advertising agency in Central London. At that time advertising had a glamorous reputation, but that wasn’t the reason I joined: I just wanted a job that would be different every day, one that would be interesting and intellectually challenging, and accountancy (which is what my university tried to push everyone into) didn’t seem to offer that.

I started as a graduate trainee in the middle of a recession, and to most of the people in advertising, this was the first recession they’d noticed, because it was the first that had had a serious impact on the south east. (Coming from Barnsley, I’d just assumed the early 90s recession was simply a continuation of the early 80s recession – I had no idea that some parts of the country had enjoyed a boom between the two.)

So advertising in the early 1990s was like turning up to a splendid mansion on a Monday morning and finding a Rolls Royce in the swimming pool, fag butts stubbed out in champagne glasses, TVs still smoking from having their screens smashed in, and my new bosses minesweeping empty bottles and greeting me with, “Man, I can’t believe you missed the eighties. It was so great here then. We had such a party, a party like you wouldn’t believe. Where were you? Now get this mess cleaned up, the place is a tip.”

(Don’t feel sorry for me. When I tell this story to people who work in advertising today, their reaction is along the lines of “There were parties here once? Bollocks, I don’t believe you.”)

But there were various hangovers of different kinds from that decade of excess. At least once a week during the 90s, the ‘Jolly Trolley’ would be wheeled down the corridor connecting our veal-fattening pens. It was someone’s birthday, someone was leaving, someone had got a promotion, we’d won a new piece of business – there was always an excuse. Me and the other graduate recruits were usually too busy to join the festivities, but when we finished work around 8pm, long after the party had moved on to the pub, we’d scavenge the Jolly Trolley for unopened bottles to take home. For my first 18 months in London, I practically subsisted on stolen crisps, warm Budweiser and cheap, shitty champagne.

Often, we’d have a mild buzz before the Jolly Trolley even appeared. Frequently, client meetings would run over lunch, and at 1pm a trolley that was only marginally less jolly, loaded with crisps and sandwiches, would be wheeled into the meeting room and unloaded onto the middle of the table. Behind this first trolley, a second full of wine and beer would follow, and people would crack open the booze without even breaking the flow of whoever was presenting acetates on the overhead projector. This was normal. No one even commented on it. From that point, we would drink steadily and moderately until the meeting was over. (I don’t remember anyone ever finishing the meeting pissed.)

I can’t remember when the drinks trolleys stopped. I didn’t notice them becoming rarer and finally disappearing. But some time in the early noughties I was in a lunchtime meeting with Pret sandwiches and cans of Coke and I remembered the lunchtime booze trolley for the first time in many years. I realised that not only had it disappeared; if anyone suggested bringing it back now they would be censured for suggesting something so inappropriate. Somewhere along the line, without it being discussed, the idea of drinking alcohol in a daytime business meeting had become completely unacceptable. Everyone simply knew it was, just as everyone had known a decade previously that its was fine.

Back when advertising was boozier, the ads were much better, and people enjoyed the job more. I’m not going to argue that the presence of booze was the main reason for this; all I am saying is that when people were drinking, the job still got done. Good ads got made and those ads did good business for the clients. The standard of work did not dramatically increase when the booze disappeared. People were made to work harder and longer, but if anything, the quality of the work they produce has declined. Just watch a commercial break if you don’t believe me.

You should be able to trust grown adults to occasionally go to the pub at lunchtime without coming back to the workplace sozzled. If people drink at lunchtime to the point where it affects their work, then they should be reprimanded for it, but the crime should be the sloppy work or unacceptable behaviour, not the drinking itself.

Workplace drinking has beneficial effects as well as negative ones, and while there’s no measurement of them, I suspect they’re more widespread than the bad behaviour. A quiet pint can smooth things over, avoid problems, thank someone, share problems or create bonds.

When I visited Japan for my book Three Sheets to the Wind, I discovered that beer solves an apparent paradox in the Japanese workplace. Japanese salarymen tend to give little of themselves away in the workplace, but will only do business with those they know and trust. How do you get to know and trust someone if the shields are always up? Beer symbolizes a switch from ‘on’ to ‘off’, a ritualised movement from formality to informality, to a time when they are permitted to bond and share.

Maybe they don’t do it at lunchtime, so it’s not quite the same as the plight of Lloyds drinkers. But to ban lunchtime drinking outright, rather than punish any negative consequences of it, stigmatises drinking in general. And if you’re lucky enough to still get a lunch break, it’s your own time. If drinking is wrong at lunchtime, then surely it’s not ideal at other times either? What next: a ban on evening drinking from Monday to Thursday to get rid of the detrimental effects of weekday hangovers?

I have no desire to get pissed with city boys. But thinking about it, and mangling a quote traditionally attributed to Voltaire, when it comes to their drinking, I disapprove of their twattish, drunken behaviour, but I will defend to the death their right to be drunken twats.

| Alcohol, Dry January, Neo-prohibitionism, Social Trends

Eleven things I learned this Dry January

I can have a drink again the day after tomorrow. I might do, I might not. OK, I probably will. The lure of the hop, the anticipation of the crisp smack of the bittersweet apple, have been mostly dormant for the past four weeks, but now I’m so close to the finishing line, I’m getting thirsty again. I probably won’t drink the day after. Because whatever I do, and whenever I have my first drink, I won’t be going back to my old habits – not completely. Here are eleven things about drinking that I’ve learned over the last month and want to remember for the rest of the year.

1. Not drinking is amazing

In the first few days, you notice the better sleep, the higher energy, the greater clarity of thought. My blood pressure, which landed me in hospital in October, is now verging on normal. After a couple of weeks, you realise you’re thinking differently. You’re more in the moment, more thoughtful, more connected. This is not always pleasant. But like the physical benefits, it does feel like it’s doing you some good. My old mate, star of Three Sheets and Australian beer legend David Downie likes this side of things even more than he liked beer. This short account of his own experiment parts company with my own but has much in common, and is well worth a read for anyone who enjoys a drink, whether you ultimately share his path or not.

2. I’m not an alcoholic

No physical withdrawal symptoms, no cravings, no obsessive dreaming of drink, no problems being around people who are drinking. I drink for many reasons: because I’m stressed, because I’m relaxed, because I’m happy, because I’m sad, because I’m with people, because I’m alone. The times I’ve missed drinking the most are times relaxing with friends who are drinking, and that’s good because that’s when I should be drinking – something I can’t say so easily about some of the other times. I stumbled once, at a drinks industry event where the invitation clearly specified there were soft drinks available, and was wrong. Not even being able to get a glass of water, I cracked. But I drank less than I normally would. I didn’t feel compelled to carry on afterwards. I simply got back to not drinking the next day.

3. Many people are defensive around their own drinking

If you’re angry or annoyed with someone who is taking time off drinking, maybe you need to ask yourself why.

4. Each to their own

I take a month off every year because I drink heavily over the other eleven months. If you only drink a couple of days a week, or you stop after one glass, or any other permutation which means you are genuinely pretty sure you’re not overdoing it, you probably don’t need to do a #Dryathlon, whatever misinformation bodies like Alcohol Concern might spread. Your relationship with your alcohol consumption is your business alone (unless it reaches a stage where your actions harm other people.)

5. The eternal party you think you’re missing out on is not really happening

The social media networks we create for ourselves mean that every few minutes someone is telling us about the awesome beer they are currently enjoying. If we’re not drinking an awesome beer, we can feel like we’re the only ones missing out. But it’s just an illusion created by lots of people all drinking at different times and in different places. Not a single one of them is partying as hard as the aggregation of them makes it seem.

6. It’s an age thing

Lots of people drink heavily in their late teen and twenties. It’s a cultural norm, and it’s good for you. Lots of people then drastically reduce their drinking when they have kids and settle down and need to be sober enough to drive everywhere, or simply feel that propping up the bar every night is not a good look for someone with a family waiting at home. At some point, the childless among us need to stop drinking like 24 year-olds and recognise that, like fashion and hair styles, there’s a different way of doing it when you’re older.

7. It is possible to socialise without drink

It just takes some getting used to. Alcohol is a welcome social lubricant in many situations. Some of those can be almost as good without that lubricant. A scattered few might even be better.

8. Elderflower cordial is the hophead’s methadone

Nice and strong, with sparkling water, it seems I’m still a five-pints-a-night man. See also: spicy Virgin Mary, various proper loose leaf herbal teas.

9. The anti-drink lobby is in complete disarray

There’s nothing like a heavy drinker taking a break and being fine with it to illustrate the utter confusion among the anti-drink lobby. Parts of this lobby have mounted a massive campaign to persuade everyone to give up in January. Others say that if you feel the need to do this, it proves you have a problem. Other still say it might be bad for you because it encourages you to drink like a bastard for the rest of the year. I even read one article which tried to argue that an increasing number of people giving up alcohol in January was solid proof of more people drinking to greater excess – yep, that’s right – a rise in the number of people not drinking is proof that those people are drinking more. Some people simply drink a lot because they enjoy it, and are not alcoholics, and can stop as and when they need to. The more militant neo-prohibitionists hate this, because it disproves so much of their bullshit about the perils of booze. And that alone is reason enough to go dry for a month.

10. The pro-drink lobby is in complete disarray

As I wrote in a recent Publican’s Morning Advertiser piece, pubs don’t always cover themselves in glory in January. Heavy drinkers provide pubs with most of their profits over the year as a whole. Many of them go further than that by blogging, tweeting and otherwise spreading the word about how great their locals are. Often, these same people then get abuse when they decide to put their health before the pub’s profit for just a few weeks. That’s just plain nasty. Pubs are very quick to say they offer so much more than beer, and rightly so. If that’s true though, it shouldn’t be the end of the world if some of your regulars decide to temporarily abstain from alcohol. Maybe if pubs offered a decent range of soft drinks at sensible prices Dry January wouldn’t be such a financial problem. We Dryathletes still want to go out and see our friends in the convivial environment we love.

11. Drinking is amazing

By the second week you start to feel like a cultist praising the virtues of abstention. By the third week, you start to notice that everything is bright and shiny and hard. Perhaps a little TOO bright. It’s natural and healthy to sometimes want to fuzz the edges and turn the lights down to mood. I’ve missed that. But I’ve missed the sensory experience of drinking – the aromas and tastes of good beer, cider, wine, sherry and the occasional malt whisky, and the stories that go with them, the associations they have, the connections they make, the contemplations and flights of fancy they inspire – a whole lot more. Drink is special. It should feel like a treat, not something that’s so much a part of your routine that you hardly notice it, let alone appreciate it.

The end of my Dry January neatly coincides with a trip to Chicago next week for the American national cider conference. While I’m there, I’ll be taking in a new Lagunitas brewery opening, visiting Goose Island, and cramming in as many craft beer bars as I possibly can among the many wonderful US craft ciders. When I get back, I’m straight into looking at the drinks finalists for the Food and Farming Awards, then visiting Brew Dog in Aberdeen… and so it goes on. A rich and varied drinking life, and one that I want to be able to enjoy for many years to come.