Tag: binge drinking

| 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.


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The simple reason why anti-alcohol campaigners fail to understand British drinking habits

Despite alcohol consumption and binge drinking continuing to fall, we’re still being warned that we drink too much. Coverage of the latest research reveals that we’re talking at cross-purposes.

When I wrote my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, I made a big deal about binge drinking in the UK compared to other countries. Despite having listed up to 200 words to describe drunkenness in Man Walks into a Pub, it struck me that we didn’t have a good word to describe the state between drunkenness and sobriety.

For Three Sheets I travelled through fourteen different countries exploring beer drinking culture. In Spain, I found the word chispa – literally translated as ‘spark’. They use it to describe the state when you’ve had a few drinks and the world is suffused with a warm glow. You probably wouldn’t drive a car or operate heavy machinery, but it would be pushing it to say that you’re pissed. Social inhibitions have eroded, and you’re probably a bit more animated, a bit more talkative. But you’re not in a state where you would do anything you regret, or anything you can’t remember. Your speech isn’t slurred and you can still walk straight. You just feel nicer.

In Germany, they have a word Gemütlichkeit, which translates most closely as ‘cosiness’, and is used to describe a similar state. In Denmark it’s hygge. Since then, I’ve discovered the same concept in various other countries.

The best equivalents we have in English are ‘merry’ or ‘tipsy’, which sound like they only apply to your aunt at a wedding. The Americans say ‘buzzed’, or they might talk about ‘getting a buzz on’, but this is imprecise and doesn’t exclude outright drunkenness. So we usually end up describing this state by saying that we got ‘a little bit pissed.’

This is hopelessly misleading and inadequate. Talk to the Spanish, and they make a clear distinction between chispa and drunkenness. As in, ‘I reach chispa two or three times a week, but I haven’t been drunk since I was eighteen.’ It’s a separate state, a specifically different level of intoxication, just as different from outright drunkenness as it is from sobriety. Whereas we in the UK are on a sliding scale – as soon as we’re not completely sober, we’re a little bit drunk, with the implication that we’re inevitably heading further along the spectrum.

I’m reminded of this by the dangerous language around new research released by a group led by the University of Sheffield into British drinking habits.

It claims that the British are rejecting advice on ‘binge drinking’ guidelines because trying to measure it in units has no relation to how we actually drink.

Fair enough, I can relate to that.

It finds that most of us don’t drink every day (so why the daily guidelines?) but that when we do fancy a drink, we drink a fair bit. So now, there are calls for telling us “how much we can safely binge drink on a Saturday night,”

And this is where researchers and reporters queue up to show how little they understand about drinking.

Lead Researcher Dr John Holmes, from the University of Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, says, “What we found is that the guidelines at the moment kind of assume that people drink a bit too much, very often. In fact we were finding people saying’ I don’t drink too often but when I go out I do want to get a bit drunk.” He then goes on to argue that this is different from the European drinking culture of “little and often.”

I’m not going to claim that there’s no such thing as a northern European binge drinking culture. But what’s being implied here is that this binge culture is the norm. And here’s where the use of language is shockingly, dangerously, misleading.

People saying they want to go out and get “a little bit drunk” is now being portrayed as the same as “binge drinking.”

I’d argue that people wanting to get “a little bit drunk” is them wanting to drink enough to feel the effects of alcohol (which for the vast majority, means more than the current daily guidelines). I would suggest that this is exactly the same as chispa, the Mediterranean culture that is supposedly so different from ours.

This research gets some things right, in that it is genuinely trying to understand the reasons people drink – and drink to excess. The reporting of the research doesn’t seem to be intentionally alarmist, and I haven’t seen much in the way of trying to twist it to suggest that we’re drinking ourselves to death.

But by equating “a bit drunk” with “binge drinking”, and by making no distinction between tipsiness, buzz, mild intoxication, whatever you want to call it, and the big occasions when we get wasted, it suggests a completely inaccurate picture of British drinking habits.

Most people I know go out and occasionally get pissed. Yes, there’s some bravado about it. Yes, we might have an irresponsible cheerfulness about it. But I’d argue that most British people, most of the time, drink enough to feel a buzz, but not enough to wake up with a stinking hangover the next morning. And increasingly, these drinking occasions happen less often.

Alcohol is an intoxicating drug. That’s one of the main reasons we drink it (not the only reason mind). We drink it to feel an effect. And as a society, we currently have a real problem with that – an automatic assumption that if we want to change our brain chemistry with the use of drugs, that is some kind of moral failing, even a crime. The source of our problem around drink policy is that we’re scared to admit this – alcohol advertising is banned from suggestion that drink can be a factor in enhancing social occasions, when that is the main reason we have it at social occasions, because it DOES.

And so we get the sheer daftness of home secretary Theresa May trying to ban ‘legal highs’ by bringing forward a bill for the outright prohibition of any and all psychoactive substances, which then makes specific exemptions for those in common use, such as alcohol, coffee, and I presume, chocolate, pro plus tablets, snuff, paracetomol, Berocca, and anything else that the ingestion of which changes people’s moods, depending on how the government is feeling.


Every human society, at every stage of human history, has used psychoactive substances to change brain chemistry and mood. In stable societies with proper guidelines around their use, these mood changes enhance our lives and bring us closer together. When societies are unstable and uncertain, and when the controls around these substances are unfit (which is just as likely to mean that they are over-controlled rather than not controlled enough, driving usage underground, criminalising and deregulating supply) they are more likely to cause harm.

It is not a moral failing, nor is it objectively dangerous, to seek to change our brains with the use of intoxicating substances. It is dangerous to over-indulge.

But to drink enough to feel an effect, to get “a bit drunk”, which is the best translation of chispa we have, is NOT the same as binge drinking. To suggest that it is is to overwhelmingly misunderstand what drinking is all about.

Drinking to get drunk, as we commonly understand it, is to seek oblivion through drink – to blot out the end of a relationship or a terrible, stressful job.  To drink to get “a bit drunk” is to relax, chill out, get closer to people and form social bonds. It is to heighten life experience, not blot it out. Crucially, it’s about the pattern of drinking, the context of drinking, the speed of drinking, and what you’re drinking, at least as much as it is about the amount you drink. How else do you explain the fact that middle class people drink more than poor working class people, but poor working class people are more likely to suffer from alcohol related harm than middle class people?

Until those influencing government policy understand this, we haven’t got a hope of there being any sensible advice on how much it is safe to drink.

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Sir Ian Gilmore and Alcohol Concern are lying to us and damaging our understanding of alcohol related health issues

A strong headline.

If it isn’t true, I can easily be sued for libel. I’m not expecting to be served legal papers any time soon, and that’s because of two news stories published today.

The first is from the hateful, fear-mongering Daily Mail. Under the headline ‘‘Meteoric rise’ in alcohol-related deaths’, the Mail gives a summary of Sir Ian Gilmore’s speech at a conference yesterday hosted by Alcohol Concern. In this speech he cites a ‘meteoric’ rise in deaths by liver disease, and we are told that alcohol-related hospital admissions are at an all-time high. The article also mentions a 2011 study showing that 30% of boys and 25% of girls claim to have been drunk in the last thirty days.

This all seems very clear. Except it isn’t.
Also today, Public Health England announced that it will be changing the method of alcohol-related hospital statistics following acknowledgement that the figures quoted yesterday are misleading. Hospital admissions are broken down into primary and secondary causes. If you get so drunk you have alcohol poisoning, alcohol is your primary cause of admission. If you’re admitted with liver disease or high blood pressure – which could be caused partly by drinking, as well as other factors, alcohol is a secondary cause of your admission. 
Even if you don’t drink. 
It goes beyond that – I’ve written here before about how if you have an accident or injury, and you have had a drink, your admission is alcohol-related even if that drink did not – could not – have been relevant. If you’re having a glass of wine in a restaurant and the roof caves in on you, for example, your injuries are alcohol-related.
So the body that releases the statistics is recalculating them because they are misleading, splitting out primary and secondary causes more clearly. Alcohol Concern and Ian Gilmore know this, even as they continue to cite these statistics.
But today’s report reveals something even more extraordinary. Because even if you think the stats are accurate and true, as I’m sure Gilmore and Alcohol Concern do, according to the people who compile them, you cannot use them to suggest that alcohol related hospital admissions are increasing – as Gilmore and friends frequently do. Here’s what a spokesperson for Public health England has to say:
Much of this increase is believed due to improvements in diagnosis and recording… these improvements mean that while recent estimates are likely to be a better reflection of the comorbidity [secondary disorders] associated with alcohol, estimates from earlier time periods are not directly comparable as they will have underestimated the number of secondary conditions related to alcohol. [My emphasis]
So, depending on whether you are pro- or anti-drink, either: 
Gilmore and Alcohol Concern are talking bollocks because the official figures overestimate alcohol related hospital admissions
Gilmore and Alcohol Concern are talking bollocks because the official figures show an increase only because of improvements in measurement, not because of changes in behaviour.
Either way, these people know about this. They know they should not be using these figures to claim a rise in alcohol related hospital admissions. But they do it anyway, wilfully misleading the nation. 
In addition, Gilmore and Alcohol Concern repeatedly avoid the medical fact that only around 37% of liver disease is primarily caused by alcohol – it’s also caused by Hepatitis C and obesity. They never refer to Britain’s rising obesity epidemic as a possible cause of rising liver disease. It must be alcohol consumption, even though that is declining long term.
Oh, and those figures above talking about the percentage of kids drinking? What the Mail refuses to tell you is that the survey from which they were taken showed a REDUCTION in underage drinking. That’s why they don’t tell you what the figure was a few years before.
We are being lied to. Tell everyone.

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Too much confusion on all sides about problem drinking

If I said ‘high strength alcoholic drink’ to you, what would come to mind?

For me, it would be malt whisky – my favourite high strength alcoholic drink. It’s the perfect end to a special evening. If I have too much of it, it’s the thing that gives me a hangover like nothing else, so I keep it at arm’s length, a rare treat – after all, it’s at least 40% ABV. You have to treat stuff like that with respect.

But for legislators on alcohol, a ‘high strength alcoholic drink’ is nowhere near that high – to them, high strength alcohol is 6-7%. In fact, they’d like it defined as anything over 5.6% ABV.

Now, if you’re unfamiliar with the ongoing debate about the impact of alcohol on Britain’s health, this might strike you as bizarre and useless because it classes almost all alcoholic drinks as ‘high strength alcoholic drinks’ – ALL spirits, ALL wines, fortified wines and sherries, liqueurs, and quite a few beers and ciders. To legislate against all of those is tantamount to total prohibition.

But then, those seeking to tackle problem drinking seem to have an entirely different definition of what constitutes ‘high strength alcohol’. Apparently, wines that average 13.5% ABV, spirits that average 40% ABV, sherries that average 17% ABV etc. are not high strength at all. But a beer of 7%ABV is.

I just did a Google picture search using the phrase ‘high strength alcohol’ to illustrate the absurdity of this position. But it seems it’s me that’s being absurd by believing that 7 is a lower number than 13 or 40. Here are the first product images that search returns:

Ah yes, of course. Once again, if we’re talking about alcohol in the context of it being a problem, it must be beer or cider.

I started thinking about this because of a report in The Grocer magazine the other week which said that local authorities are seeking voluntary bans on ‘high strength alcohol’ – a story that was illustrated by the final picture above. After plans to introduce a minimum unit price were dropped, more than twenty towns and cities in England have introduced bans on what they and The Grocer and the rest of the media specifically refer to as ‘high strength alcohol’ in their attempts to reduce problem drinking.

I don’t oppose attempt to curb problem street drinking. And I agree that for the most part (but not exclusively) the drink of choice of the problem street drinker is what we commonly refer to as ‘super strength’ lager or cider. But this laziness with terms – making high strength beer and high strength alcohol synonymous – highlights just how little anyone understands alcohol and how careless we are with legislating it.

If a wine were 7% alcohol, legally it wouldn’t be allowed to be called wine – it would be too weak. But this same alcohol level in beer is considered dangerous. This is why any beer over 7% must already pay extra duty, thanks to a clumsy measure that makes no distinction between a strong, flavourful craft beer that costs nearly a pound per unit of alcohol and something vile like White Lightning that currently retails at an average of 25p per unit.

Measures like this denigrate the overall image of beer and cider and muddy our understanding of relative strengths. If they referred to ‘high strength beer and cider’, then we’d only have the problem of trying to distinguish between the cheap stuff that’s consumed purely for it’s intoxicating effect, and the higher strength stuff that stretches the boundaries of what quality beer can be. But when drinks of 7% are banned while drinks of 13-17% are considered exempt, we have a much bigger problem, not least of which is that hardcore street drinkers will simply move on to cheap sherry, which is more than double the strength of what they’ve just been told they can’t drink.

As the above pictures demonstrate, if ‘high strength alcohol’ is commonly only understood to apply to super strength beer and cider, then as well as being patently absurd it also continues to make beer and cider the scapegoats for problem drinking, when as anyone who has ever been to a pub or known a non-street drinking alcoholic knows, most problem drinkers favour spirits, and wine is playing its part too.

So what can we do?

Well, brewers and cider makers could always stop making the nasty drinks that are causing the problem in the first place.

The manufacturers of super strength beer and cider offer defences such as ‘We should focus on the problem drinker, not the drink’ and ‘They’d just move onto something else’. I agree with both these points – in fact I just used the last one two paragraphs ago. They are true, valid arguments. But that doesn’t excuse the manufacturers of such products.

It’s simple: if anyone who makes revolting crap like this

can look me in the eye with hand on heart and say that their main target audience is NOT the problem drinker looking for the biggest bang for their buck, I’d love to hear it. If you have any evidence that moderate drinkers include these products within their repertoire and drink them responsibly in small measures, I’d love to see it.

Since I left my full-time advertising job, on my occasional dabbles into marketing it’s becoming clear to me that marketers do not see their ‘consumers’ as real people. When you reduce everything to a PowerPoint presentation of pie charts and graphs and brand essence models full of euphemisms and jargon, this insulates you from the fact that your C2DE male 35-54 budget-conscious consumer is an alcoholic who you are helping to kill.

And when manufacturers and retailers look to legal action to overturn voluntary bans on their products so they can carry on helping kill people – well, then you’ve dropped any pretence of being anything other than nasty, amoral bastards with no sense of the social consequences of your actions – a purely sociopathic organisation.

The manufacturers of these products profit from the alcoholism of troubled people. And while they’re doing so, they damage the image of beer and cider generally, and quality high strength beers and ciders in particular.

So problem drinkers would move onto other products? Fine, it would no longer be beer’s problem. And more importantly, we would start to think of what constitutes ‘high strength alcohol’ in a way that has some bearing on reality.

We should focus on the drinker rather than the drink? Absolutely we should. But that does not mean we should happily carry on selling these concoctions to them while we wait patiently for local authorities and government to figure that out.

It’s not just black and white. Except when this entire issue is explored in one of Viz magazine’s truest characters – then it’s black and white.

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Government report says Mandatory Code on pubs not needed – govt introduces it anyway

Catching up with myself, I thought that overall it would be less embarrassing if I started at the back with the really old correspondence and notes I haven’t yet dealt with rather than starting with what I need to respond to from yesterday.

I’m glad I did, because I’m regretting not remembering and sharing this little treasure earlier: At the end of January, a friend of mine in the industry sent me a link to Home Office’s overview report on regulating the alcohol industry, which was issued by the Government to support the launch of the Mandatory Code a few weeks ago.
My friend D thought the final paragraph of the report was particularly revealing:

Existing legislation
A question that looms in responses across strands and across audiences is whether the regulation
of the on-trade needs as much tightening as the Consultation Document suggests. It is stressed
that most premises are not hubs of crime and disorder. Where problems may arise, many feel that
the enforcement of existing legislation as well as voluntary local partnerships can go a long way in
addressing them. Many measures are already considered good practice and it is questioned
whether further legislation is therefore needed.
In other words – the government produces a report to back up more restrictions on pubs, and that very report concludes by questioning whether further restrictions are needed, but the government implements them anyway, and releases the report that says no further restrictions are needed to support the further restrictions they’ve implemented.
I wanted to use a picture here. This is the space where a picture of the Dentist’s Chair promotion would go, if such a picture actually existed.
And for those of you with long memories – there’s no mention of the Dentist’s Chair promotion anywhere in the report. I wonder when that was inserted as a soundbite? Surely we’re not looking at something here that was ‘sexed up’?

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At conference

Writing this on my way home from the SIBA annual conference, on a cold, draughty train with no tables, no refreshment trolley, no power sockets. Wedged sideways on a hard, narrow seat, developing pins and needles in my left leg which is curled up to provide a surface for the laptop, the cold grey light, bare branches and churned, muddy fields gliding past the window, everything conspiring to accentuate what was a surprisingly mild hangover, draw out the nuances of it, develop the waves of pain and nausea like a symphony orchestra playing variations on a theme, and turn it into something that forces me to seriously contemplate tearing my eyeballs from their sockets. But it was worth every groan, whimper and noxious whiff. I first went to SIBA two years ago, to present a summary of the first Cask Report. They treated me well, looked after me, and I said yes like a shot when they asked me back to present on the second cask report a year later. But three years running felt like overkill, so this year I wasn’t invited to speak. It got to Monday and I thought, sod it, there’s no actual reason for me to go this year, but it’s such a good crack I’ll go anyway. Not for the speeches and presentations – even though some of them were quite good, they weren’t really aimed at me – but for the chance to be in a room full of brewers sharing their beers. Every year a local MP or mayor will open the conference and inevitably talk about how real ale is not a binge drink, and everyone will nod furiously, and throughout the day the theme will be referred back to in presentation after presentation – real ale drinkers are moderate drinkers, responsible drinkers, you can’t really binge drink real ale, and we all nod every time it comes up, and then at 5pm the speeches finish and we charge the bar and get riotously, deliciously hoonered on real ale. SIBA conference drinking is drinking with gusto, with relish. It’s hearty drinking, lustful for life drinking, and more importantly, it’s only £1.50 a pint. The conference (or just ‘conference’ without the definite article according to the people running the thing – it makes it sound more important) also sees the announcement of the winners of the SIBA National Brewing Competition, which is becoming a serious contender to CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain. The overall winner was Triple Chocoholic from the Saltaire Brewery in Bradford, also winner of the speciality beer category. Brewed with chocolate malt, actual chocolate and chocolate syrup towards the end, it’s a very easy beer to write tasting notes for; a very difficult beer to write good tasting notes for. It’s very, very chocolatey and very, very gorgeous. Sorry, that’s the best I can do. Saltaire also won their category for their Cascade Pale Ale. People have been murmuring about Saltaire for a while now, they’ve won a bagful of awards already, but this felt like a coming out party for them. Definitely a brewery to watch, and after chatting to the brewer after dinner I’m looking forward to arranging a visit as soon as I can. Thornbridge Lord Marples, Bank Top’s Dark Mild, Salopian Darwin’s Origin, Green Mill Big Chief Bitter, Dorothy Goodbody’s Country Ale, Blue Monkey Guerilla and St Austell Proper Job were the other category winners. And Christ, I’ve laughed a lot in the last two days. Sometimes I laughed at someone’s expense (I’m sorry, but even if the bloke selling stillaging units has never seen Swiss Toni on The Fast Show, he still can’t be forgiven for that haircut, moustache and grey suit combination) but mostly I laughed because the people I was in conversation with were extremely funny. The theme of the conference was people – working with people, valuing people you work with, getting the best out of them. It brought home just what a people business the beer business is. That’s a rubbish thing to say, because every single business on the planet is a people business, but what we mean is that it’s a sociable business. Someone on my table at dinner last night told a story about when he was at another conference in a hotel, and in the bar afterwards he was sitting enjoying a few beers with some of the other delegates. There was another conference in the same hotel – packaging or IT systems or insurance or something – and the guy in charge of that conference decided to – ahem – ‘work the room’. He came over to our brewer’s table and said, “Hi, what do you guys do?” “We’re brewers,” replied the brewer. “Right! Cool. Which brewery?” “Well… we all work for different breweries.” The guy was incredulous. “I’d get fired if I did something like that! There’s no way we could simply sit round a table having a laugh with our competitors. It just wouldn’t happen.” This is one of the things I love most about beer. You doubtless have a pile of stories yourself that illustrate the same point. And it’s why I get so bleeding angry when the infighting starts. We’re better than that. We have something no one else has. SIBA has its critics, as do small brewers generally (I was in a room recently where one big brewer turned a small brewer he’d only just met and said “You lot are all parasites.”) And SIBA itself has its own share of infighting and politicking. There are always issues and genuine areas of disagreement, competing priorities and conflicts. And I’m lucky that I can stay half in, half out of such conflicts, not being a brewer or pub owner myself. But the sociability and the common cause are much greater, much more important. Which is why I’ll be at ‘conference’ again this time next year.

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The Health Select Committee Report on Alcohol

I know I go on quite a bit about the politics of drinking. Here’s a very good illustration of why I do.

The Parliamentary Health Select Committee today issued its report on the ‘shocking’ levels of binge drinking in the UK, soaring hospital admissions and death rates attributable to alcohol, cost of drinking to the UK, and so on.
As usual with reports like this, the findings of the committee have been reported across the media as fact. Any dissenting voice is confined to a comment near the bottom of the piece from an alcohol industry spokesperson.
The report recommends, among other things, the following measures:
Pricing and taxation

  • Introduce minimum pricing
  • Increase in spirits duty
  • Increase “industrial white cider duty”
  • Duty increases should predominantly be on stronger drinks


  • Statutory regulation of advertising from outside of alcohol and advertising industry
  • No billboards within 100 metres of schools
  • 9 o’ clock watershed for TV advertising
  • Cinema advertising only for films with an 18 certificate
  • If over 10% of audience/readership is under 18 then medium should not be used to advertise
  • Alcohol advertising banned on social networking sites


  • Impose mandatory code urgently (which bans cut price drinks promotions, demands CCTV in pubs, and more)
  • Police to enforce ‘serving to drunks’ legislation
  • Government should assess why pubs associated with heavy drinking do not have their licences revoked
  • Government should give more powers to local authorities to allow them to restrict and revoke licences
  • Copy the restrictions on promotions in the off-trade introduced in Scotland, such as limited areas for alcohol consumption


  • Mandatory labelling scheme on all drinks packaging
  • Improve alcohol treatment services

Now there are some sensible measures in there – I for one have no problem with steep increases in duty on tramp juice and a fairer allocation of duty on spirits relative to beer. And I’m still undecided on minimum pricing – I disagree with the level being recommended but can see some arguments for it as well as against it. But there are some deeply worrying recommendations too, and it’s the sheer volume of recommendations that’s really scary.

But why should we care?
Well, because Liam Donaldson told the committee (with his usual utter disregard of any factual substantiation whatsoever) that there are “no safe limits of drinking,” and that “alcohol is virtually akin to smoking as one of the biggest public health issues we have to face in this country.”
Bollocks of course. But officially published, sanctioned, and undisputed bollocks.
And that comparison with smoking is quite deliberate. Not all the measures listed above will come to pass, but arguably the most important line in the report is this one: “Education, information campaigns and labelling will not directly change behaviour, but they can change attitudes and make more potent policies more acceptable.”Smoking hasn’t been banned form British society. But consistent campaigning against smoking eventually changed social attitudes towards it. The smoking ban came in because the majority of people were in favour of it. Nobody but the ad industry minded when advertising and sponsorship were banned. Making smoking socially unacceptable was far more effective than trying to ban it outright. The anti-drink lobby have learned from this, and this report is a naked attempt to make drinking socially unacceptable.But drinking is NOT the same as smoking. The BMA itself acknowledges the beneficial effects of moderate drinking. Nevertheless, this report seeks to persuade people to treat it the same way, and is meeting with little resistance.I’ve spent most of the last day immersed in the report, following the links to its sources, trying to work out what they’re really saying, drawing graphs so data is more easily understandable. And I’ve found that the report is highly selective in the data it uses, misrepresents what other data is saying, and in many places contains blatant untruths. It needs to be challenged.I’ve got kind of obsessed with doing so, and I’ve got lots of charts, quotes etc which do not seek to manipulate or twist the data, like the anti-alcohol lobby unfailingly does, but just present the raw numbers – collated by independent and reliable government sources and even the NHS itself – which prove that many of the report’s conclusions are deeply – I’d argue even wilfully – flawed.Over the next few days, I’ll be putting up several posts which debunk each of the following, oft-repeated myths:

  • “Alcohol consumption in the UK is increasing”
  • “Binge drinking is increasing”
  • “Alcohol is becoming more affordable”
  • “Binge drinking has been made much worse by the introduction of 24 hour licensing”
  • “Alcohol related hospital admission are soaring”
  • “Alcohol advertising and promotion must be tightly regulated, primarily because it is encouraging children to drink more alcohol.”
  • “Alcohol abuse costs the country £55bn a year”

Sorry to go on. But please stay tuned. And if you ever hear someone spouting any of the above bollocks, please rip off the charts and use them to argue back.

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Let’s be nice month is over

Danger! This much beer is ‘hazardous’!

Ah, New Year, a time for reflection, refocus, resolution. A time for getting fit, a time for… the neo-prohibitionists to go completely fucking apeshit, pouncing on the moment when many moderate drinkers prove they don’t have a drink problem by taking a few weeks off the sauce, and use it to ram fear and alarm down the nations throats as never before.

Binge drinking on New Year’s Eve alone could cost the NHS £23 million. New Years Eve itself saw our cities burn to the ground in a drink-fuelled orgy of violence and people falling over on the snowy pavements. The rising cost of treating drinkers could cripple the NHS. And most worryingly of all, one in four Brits are now consuming alcohol at ‘hazardous levels’. That last one must be true: it says so in the Observer, and is sourced from a NHS report.
Let’s just take that last one, as it’s the most worrying. Check out the NHS report for their justification of this claim, and it refers you to a separate appendix. Here, the source of this claim is given as the National Audit Office Report, Reducing Alcohol Harm. This is actually a well-written and researched report for the most part, but it tells us that the definition of ‘hazardous’ is from the World Health Organisation, who define ‘hazardous’ as ‘exceeding government recommended limits’ in the country in question, whatever those limits might be, even though they vary from country to country.
To get to the figure of 25%, the NAO report has used the recommended safe daily guidelines – expressed as units – to get to their definition of what constitutes ‘government recommended limits’.
Let’s not even get started on the fact that these units are completely arbitrary. It’s the old trick: the government unit recommendations are guidelines for drinking safely. They have been interpreted as limits, over which drinking is hazardous. According to the OED, a guideline is a ‘general rule or principle’. A limit, in this context, is ‘a restriction on the size or amount of something permissible or possible’. They mean entirely different things – but they are wilfully conflated whenever people talk about alcohol. If you think they mean the same thing, consider this example.
I got my calculator out again. You calculate a ‘unit’ of alcohol by multiplying the volume of liquid (in ml) by its ABV, and dividing by 1000. The ‘guideline’ alcohol consumption for men is no more than four units per day.
Take Kronenbourg. 1 pint = 568ml x 5%/1000 = 2.84 units
1.5 pints = 852ml x 5%/1000 = 4.26 units
The guideline for women is 3 units per day. 1 x 175 ml glass of 12% wine is 2.1 units. 1 x 150ml glass is – quite conveniently – 3 units.
If you drink a pint and a half of Kronenbourg in one day – even if that’s half a pint with lunch and one pint in the evening – you are a ‘hazardous’ drinker. If you drink one large glass of wine that is stronger than 12%, you are a ‘hazardous’ drinker. According to the latest NHS report, you’re no different from an alky downing a bottle of cheap vodka every day.
Furthermore, the way this data is collected, the actual question is along the lines of ‘did you drink this much on one day during the last week’. If you say yes, you’re included in the figure. So you could have drunk alcohol on only one out of seven days and you still count as a hazardous drinker.
A large glass of 13% abv wine, a pint and a half of lager – or two pints of real ale – in one day, with six days abstinence? Congratulations, you’re still a hazardous drinker.
This is what the whole of the UK national media have accepted without question.
Be scared.

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Carol Vorderman getting pissed up and going completely fucking apeshit, making our town centres no go areas for normal people, earlier today. At least, that’s what she would be doing if the story she is promoting was actually true.
The above headline, created by an online Daily Mail random headline generator, has finally been trumped by the real thing. Today’s Mail carries a story headlined ‘Average Briton drinks 84 times their bodyweight in alcohol‘.

But that’s not the best bit. The best bit is:
Soaring levels of binge drinking mean that many Britons drink an average of 3.7 pints of beer, or 8.5 large glasses of wine, each week.

That’s right. Half a pint of beer a day is now binge drinking on Planet Hate.
In the real world, this equates to 12.5% of the government’s approved definition of binge drinking.
The article goes on to say that if we’re not careful, we might consume a shocking 1000 calories a week through drink. If we do no exercise at all, this somehow means that this amount (which in the real world equates to 5.7% of an average adult male’s weekly calorific intake) will make us put on an extra pound every 3.5 weeks. No idea how that gets worked out with no reference whatsoever to the other 94.3% of the recommended calorific intake. Or what point they’re trying to make.
The article also repeats the lies about soaring alcohol consumption and ‘soaring levels of binge drinking’ in the UK, which the government’s own figures – along with those of every body that studies this area using proper research techniques – explicitly contradict.
The headline is factually incorrect too – it refers to 11,800 pints over 60 years – which are on average between 3.5 and 5% alcohol. Yet states – or implies – it’s referring to pure alcohol. Apart from being wrong, it’s meaningless. Any liquid the consistency of water weighs pretty much the same. By point of comparison, it’s worth noting that a glass of orange juice every day would weigh exactly the same, but would contain an additional 438,000 calories over the 60 year period.
This horse poo is part of the launch of something called the ALculator by Lloyds Pharmacy, launched by Carol Bloody Vorderman. It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong. But people read it and believe it – just see the comments at the end of the piece. Please join in giving it the ridicule it deserves.
Next week: how real ale drinking homosexual asylum seekers are turning house prices gay.
The official definition of a binge is double the recommended daily unit limit – which is 3-4 for men. Half a pint of beer is one unit. The recommended calorific intake for an adult male is 2500 a day, or 17,500 a week. Half a pint of average beer contains 105 calories, whereas the same volume of orange juice contains 124.
I posted some comments (which were not published) to the Mail’s website this afternoon, and posted this blog around 8ish. At 9.56pm the Mail story was amended. References to ‘soaring binge drinking’ have been removed. The link between 3.7 pints a week and binge drinking has been removed. The reference to increasing alcohol consumption has been removed. The statement that 1000 calories a week can lead to a weight gain has been removed. Basically, there’s no substance at all left to the story. It may not be my efforts or all those who retweeted links to this post that are responsible. It may be some of the comments that were printed below the story. But somebody, somewhere, has had an effect and these lies and distortions have been taken down. We CAN stop this nonsense being perpetrated.
Depressing thing: in the comments, more than one person has read this piece of Daily Mail scaremongering, disagreed with it, then blamed the distortion not on the Mail, but on New Labour – who had nothing whatsoever to do with the story! Brainwashing still works long term 🙁