Category: Neo-prohibitionism

| 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.