The industry-funded alcohol education body Drinkaware have recently teamed up with Public Health England to launch a campaign to encourage people to have alcohol-free days. Some of us may enjoy a touch of Schadenfreude at the news that this has led to the resignations of several prominent figures such as Sir Ian Gilmore on the grounds that health campaigners should not have any association with the drinks industry.
However, that should not lead us to conclude that it is anything other than an act of appeasement of the anti-drink lobby. It takes as read the unscientific 14 units a week consumption guideline, something that if generally adopted by the population would probably render most of the pubs in the country unviable. It is worth noting that the equivalent guidelines in Italy are 35 units for men and 26 for women.
Plus, as often happens with such initiatives, the effect is likely to be more to encourage the already prudent to even more unnecessary over-caution, while being cheerfully ignored by the irresponsible. The objective often seems to be less to change behaviour than to further denormalise alcohol consumption per se. And, intuitively, it seems to me that drinking one pint every day of the week is likely to do you less harm than drinking seven pints on one day.
Accepting this guideline may give the industry a figleaf of respectability, but it’s an ever-shrinking one. Not so long ago, the figure was 28 units a week for men. It was then cut to 21, and now to 14. Will they still parrot it when it’s further reduced to 7, and then to 2? And how about when the official line becomes that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, something that has been claimed in a recent study? If drinks producers and retailers want to see where they will stand in the eyes of officialdom in twenty years’ time, they have only to look at the tobacco industry. They will have become a “toxic trade”.
It’s often a source of disappointment that industry bodies are so reluctant to speak out in their own defence, and just tag along with the official message. However, it has to be recognised that business is about making a profit, not conducting a moral crusade, and it may well make sense to keep your head down, playing along with the official agenda while dragging your feet a bit, and hoping that in time the storm will pass, which of course the previous temperance crusade of the 1870-1930 period eventually did.
On this note, it’s disappointing to see that the Drinkers’ Voice campaign, which I enthusiastically welcomed last year, seems to have become moribund. They haven’t updated their Twitter account for two months, and nor do they seem to have issued any press releases. It’s not exactly difficult for a pressure group to keep up the illusion of activity without actually doing very much, but they haven’t even been able to manage this, despite having received a substantial amount of seedcorn funding from CAMRA.
It’s always been difficult to get private citizens to come together in defence of their liberties as consumers and users of public services, as there’s an assumption that somebody else is going to do it for them. But if industry isn’t prepared to, then who else will? Of course there are individual bloggers and commenters who are prepared to speak out, but even they often come under suspicion, however unjustified, of being paid shills. Incidentally, CAMRA doesn’t really qualify as its original raison d’ être was to campaign against the policies of the brewing industry, not government, and it’s not really its role to become a generalised defender of drinkers’ interests.
There’s no body to champion the rights of all drinkers of alcohol, or of soft drinks, or of consumers of food. It’s all too easy just to chuckle when the other lot get it in the neck from government. But, at the end of the day, everyone will. United we stand, divided we fall.