Thursday, 16 January 2014

Kick a man when he’s down

In recent years I’ve seen a few slightly exasperated comments from those opposing anti-drink proposals that “it’s claimed that this will bring about a reduction in alcohol consumption of X % - well we’ve already had more than that in the past five years without it!” On the face of it, such arguments might seem to undermine the case for stricter curbs, but in reality declining consumption makes them more likely. This is a point that my friend Cooking Lager has occasionally made in the comments here when he cares to take off his baseball cap.

While politicians are allegedly guided by principle, they always have to take into account the electoral consequences of any proposed policy. As Bismarck once said, “politics is the art of the possible”. Attacking any activity pursued by the majority of the population is unlikely to prove popular, whereas identifying minority “out-groups” who need to be clamped down on may well prove a winner at the ballot box. In the words of the great H. L. Mencken, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed - and hence clamorous to be led to safety - by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Two of the last Labour government’s best-known bans, those on handguns and hunting with dogs, got through Parliament comfortably because they only affected a relatively small minority of the population. Even there the hunting ban brought half a million people on to the streets of London to protest. And we still have gun crime, and we still (it would seem) have widespread foxhunting.

When over half of all adults were smokers, nothing very significant was done to restrict smoking, apart from a symbolic ban on TV advertising which in practice made little or no difference to consumption. Looking back, it’s salutary to remember that, seventeen years ago, tobacco advertising and sports sponsorship remained legal and commonplace, there was no ban on smoking in pubs and other indoor public places, nor on the display of cigarette packets behind supermarket counters. By the time of the advertising ban, smoking prevalence had dropped below 30%, and when the indoor ban came in it was little more than 20%. Furthermore, the constant barrage of official anti-smoking messages had produced a sense of guilt and self-loathing amongst many smokers which led them to feel that such measures might be for their own good. However, in the face of such severe curbs, the rate of decline has now effectively stalled, suggesting that political grandstanding rather than bringing about genuine health improvements might be the key motivation.

In reality, while the general tone of official rhetoric and media comment has become ever more negative, nothing very major has been done to curb the availability of alcohol or significantly increase its price. The duty escalator and high strength beer duty were just tinkering at the edges, and indeed we now have a more liberal licensing regime than at any time since before the First World War. There haven’t been any meaningful restrictions on advertising and publicity at all, which you might have thought would be an easy target – possibly because legislators know that it would scarcely affect total consumption. Ironically, the most effective anti-alcohol measure, at least in terms of on-trade drinking, has been one ostensibly aimed at an entirely different target. But things may well start to change in future.

The most recent government survey showed that less than half of 18-24 year olds had had an alcoholic drink in the past week. As they grow older and this trend spreads through the population, it’s very likely that within the coming decades drinking will become a minority activity, as smoking did. Then the time will be ripe for bringing in more severe restrictions. It’s hard to legislate against something Joe Public does, but much easier if it is done by those irresponsible “other people”. But, as we have seen with smoking, the net result may well be to make people identify themselves much more clearly as “drinkers” and the natural rate of decline may be curbed or even reversed.


  1. All absolutely true, except that a smoking ban in 'public places' is what the 'banners' call it; in fact a pub is a PRIVATE place, and the publican should decide the policy on smoking. Law courts, public libraries, civic offices etc are public places, supported by taxes, but pubs are not. One reason some of us hate the smoking ban is that it means that government is expanding its influence into the private sphere, and we've seen it now extended in parts of the US to peoples' own homes. And the same logic is being applied more and more: hype up any 'health threat' and the government is 'entitled' to intervene in everything.

    I daresay there will be comments to follow, about 'filthy and disgusting' smoking, from people who've decided they hate it so much that no one should be allowed to do it anywhere, including places they would never go. It must be nice for them to be able to jump on the bandwagon and insult and bully people with the full approval (and encouragement) of Authority.

    And I daresay there will be credulous comments about 'secondhand smoke kills', but the fact is that the potential risks of smoking have been greatly and deliberately exaggerated, and anyone who's done a few minutes of research knows that risk from 'secondhand smoke' is essentially non-existent. There is NO proof, just 'projections' based on cherry-picked statistics from a minority of dodgy, biased 'studies'.

    Authorities are always looking for something which might cause harm or offence, and then exaggerating the problem and moralising, taxing, and banning. And as you say, it's always about stigmatising a minority, as much as they can get away with. That's why French prohibitionists in the early 20th century stigmatised absinthe instead of wine - in fact, the wine industry supported them behind the scenes, just as the pharmaceutical industry supports the antismoking lobby today (to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars). American prohibitionists explicitly wanted to move on to tobacco after 1920, but Prohibition was such a disaster, they couldn't. Then when Prohibition was repealed, a big majority was smoking tobacco, so in the 30s they focussed on demonising marijuana. And so it goes on today.

    I gather you're a nonsmoker, it's refreshing to see one who 'gets it'. Thank you.

  2. The term public place refers to access, not ownership. There are quite a few instances of the kind of public buildings listed by Anon being privately owned. This has always been the case, and certainly predates privatisation. I know a local tax office that is currently being manoeuvred out its premises by the private landlord. I have worked in DSS offices that have had private landlords, but it would silly to argue that the waiting area was not a public space.

  3. Yeh, if something is a vice and a cost to society where does the vote lie in taxing it more/restricting it/banning advertising/ just banning it ?

    It's all in the numbers of who does and doesn't do it.

    If you have what you think is a more responsible or discerning version of that vice, do you really think that makes a difference to those that don't?

  4. Define "cost to society".

  5. Missing the point, pyo? It’s not really about whether craft/real ale drinkers are responsible drinkers. They see themselves as a special case of drinker and the rest of society don’t much care either way whether they are or aren’t

    You already know this, your question is disingenuous. The cost to society is policing town centres at 2am, chaotic A&E departments, medical bills for liver transplants, rest of life welfare for unemployable life ruined drunks. Etc etc. Alcohol has many quantifiable costs to society. You think different? By all means. I’m not the one to convince.

    Beer enthusiasts, CAMRA members may very well see themselves as a special case of drinker. They may very well be a special case of drinker. I’m sure you and Mudge are not fighting with the rozzers on a Saturday night.

    Assume I don’t drink. Why should I care whether you are a special case? Restricting drink has no effect on me. It would benefit the public purse. Bring it on. Special pleading of discerning beer drinkers? Sounds like no more than differentiating between a pretentious wine enthusiast swirling his grog and naming the variety and year and a housewife necking a glass of what was in the Tesco bargain bin whilst in front of the telly. More an issue of class than discernment.

    CAMRA & beer geekery all too often sound like a cigar smokers club all thinking that because they smoke expensive hand roll tobacco rolled on the thighs of exotic maidens they are different from the undiscerning rothmans smokers and that they have a special case. Good luck with that.

  6. That is never an argument I have used or would ever use Cookie. CAMRA members are certainly no special case.

    The facts are clear enough, 95% of drinkers are responsible, moderate drinkers who do no harm to anyone else, and pay far, far more in tax on their booze than they ever ask back in A&E and policing services.

    Alcohol has multiple social costs, it also has many social benefits. Unfortunately an unbiased study has never been done as to which are the greater.

    Simply saying that something is "a vice" is a purely subjective moral judgement, something that has no place in public governance.

  7. I can say it again pyo, missing the point?

    By all means debate whether alcohol is good or bad for society. That's not the point. Nor is it me you need to convince if that's what you want to talk about. The point is that to the none drinker, alcohol is all cost and no benefit.

    What do think will happen when a majority of people, for whatever reason, don't drink?

    Oh and the point isn't whether it will or won't happen, it's already occurring.

    What do you think will happen to your right to drink what you like when 80% of people in the country don't drink and see alcohol as a social cost without personal benefit?

  8. I'm not sure whether you're saying this is inevitable or whether it is desirable, but either way I think you're wrong.

    There are literally 1000s of activities that less than 20% of the population do, we haven't banned them. This isn't Stalinist Russia (as much as certain groups would like it to be).

    Saying that "to the non-drinker, alcohol is all cost and no benefit" is tautological.

  9. "There are literally 1000s of activities that less than 20% of the population do, we haven't banned them."

    Yes, but most of them aren't seen as social problems. And things that have been banned (or severely restricted) tend to be those that are done by less than 25% of the population. Drugs is another prime example, of course.

  10. The vast, vast majority of the population are smart enough to recognise the distinction between moderate drinking and getting so slaughtered that you collapse in the street.

    *But* this is why its important to keep arguing our case against the would-be prohibitionists. Public opinion is easily swayed and varies enormously from decade to decade. Nothing is inevitable. Prohibitionist movements have come and go before now.

  11. The thing about the future is that no one really knows. But to answer your question, I think inevitable more than desirable.

    I like a drink and suspect when the time comes to make illicit booze from sugar and baking yeast or buy it from gangsters I’ll do without. I like it but not that much.

    I’ll confess to a degree of Schadenfreude towards those who thought there responsible and discerning consumption would exempt them but that will be tempered as I myself will no longer be able to have a swally.

    Currently the vast majority that see the distinction between moderate and excessive consumption are also consumers of alcohol. They care enough to see the distinction. When the vast majority no longer drink the distinction is irrelevant to them. I don’t think the masses are stupid. Even then, people will see the distinction but why should they care? It has nothing to do with them and they have no reason to respect your craft pub and attempt to exempt it and treat you as a special case.

    You may see yourself as one of the 5% of discerning craft beer drinkers, but you currently sit in a group of the 80% that are drinkers. When your sub group of discerning craft beer drinkers sits in the minority 20% of drinkers we will see what happens.

  12. Why the smoking ban may have gone through with so little opposition from the trade.

    Three years earlier.

    ASH and Thompsons' Tell Employers: Don't Say You Weren't Warned Over Secondhand Smoke

    January 2004

    "The hospitality trade faces a rising threat of legal action from employees whose health is damaged by secondhand smoke, after a new tie-up between health campaigning charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and the UK's largest personal injury and trade union law firm Thompsons was announced today.

    ASH has sent a registered letter to all the UK's leading hospitality trade employers, warning them that the "date of guilty knowledge" under the Health and Safety at Work Act is now past, and that employers should therefore know of the risks of exposing their staff to secondhand smoke. Employers who continue to permit smoking in the workplace are therefore likely to be held liable by the courts for any health damage caused. ASH and Thompsons intend to use the letters in any future court cases as evidence that employers have been fully informed of the issue.

    ASH and Thompsons are also planning further steps to encourage employees who believe their health has been harmed by smoking in the workplace to seek legal advice on making a claim for compensation. These will be announced shortly."

    ASH Political Bulletin 2004 Page7
    Letter to the Publican

    Managing Director of The Massive Pub Company

    "The only ultimate provision and safety for us will be a smoking ban.
    We all need to be forwarned that the next growth area for the legal system will be prosecutions of publicans for not protecting staff from the dangers of ETS.Since April 27 cases have been taken on - this is the start of a tidal wave - in my view.

    The industry, through the various trade bodies is looking for a voluntary ban with 80% of premises having smoke free areas by 2007.
    Having attended the conference I am of the clear view that far too many of us could be fighting legal battles by then, and perhaps we will be preferring a total national ban.

    We need to take a very close look at what is happening elsewhere and learn from their experiences.The clearest message from this conference is that on health and legal grounds a ban is an absolute must and an absolute certainty.
    That frightens us and requires us to change will, ultimately, be irrelevant.

    I would strongly recommend that every trade body and industry representative invites some of the speakers from this conference, or workshop.
    At least that way acknowledge of the dangers of ETS and to our livelihoods and businesses will be more widely available."

    Faced with the possibility of being held responsible for every disease any of their staff might develop in later life, as one of those unrepentant smokers,I really can't blame them for not appearing to put up much of a fight.


  13. "Even then, people will see the distinction but why should they care?"

    Same reason I'm in favour of allowing gay marriage and legalising cannabis use despite being a heterosexual that doesn't smoke, its called having principles.

    I'm not sure what's worse, the creeping assumption that most people's political views/opinions are derived purely from naked self-interest rather than an understanding of what is morally right, or the worrying fact that this view might actually be correct.

  14. pyo, I wholly agree that it is extremely important to argue the case against the prohibitionists, as you will have gathered from reading this blog.

    However that does not invalidate the point that declining consumption and prevalance of drinking makes further restriction more likely, not less.

    If you look back through history, it's probable that most bans (some justified, some not - I'm not defending bear-baiting) have occurred when the activity being banned was already in steep decline. It's called kicking in an unlocked door.

    "We are the discerning 5%" is an entirely different argument which I will return to in a later blogpost.

  15. The analogy of homosexuality is an interesting one. Over the course of my lifetime the civil rights of homosexuals have been greatly improved. Something I wholeheartedly agree with. Homosexuals are a minority so how has this occurred?

    By and large the heterosexual majority has changed its mind regarding homosexuality. It is no longer considered a perversion dangerous to the morality of society. Religion has declined and the scientific explanation for homosexuality has come to be accepted. Alongside this, marriage has declined and in terms of sex, how consenting adults live has become something most think the state ought not dictate or moralise about. Acceptance of homosexuality has occurred within a wider context of sexual freedom, not in isolation.

    Other features are also relevant. There is no social cost to me if my neighbours are 2 men. The argument that they morally corrupt society has been lost. I get to display how socially liberal and right on I am if I advocate their rights. The last point is interesting. If I tell my friends that I support gay rights, my views fit within what is currently acceptable. If I were to tell them I think homosexuals are perverts who will burn in the fires of hell for going against God, my friends would consider me a nutter and my view would be diametrically opposed to societies current morality.

    To advocate gay rights is to repeat what society already agrees with. Homosexuals won their rights not by marching through the streets but by convincing the rest of us that we could easily display how decent we are by advocating their rights for them. Who knew they were so clever?

    So as a drinker in a future world where you are the minority, how are you going to convince the none drinkers to advocate your rights for you? How is advocating your rights going to become shorthand for showing how decent I am?

  16. This has turned into an interesting conversation, though some of it is already going over my head.

    Could it be argued that CAMRA's efforts in the last forty years to present traditional British beer as a harmless and culturally important folk tradition with no connection to health problems/drunkenness/disorder might prove to have been a canny tactic if the goal is to permit beer drinking to continue as a minority activity in fifty years time..?

  17. @Mudge, the "we are the discerning 5%" is far from being a different argument. It is linked to this one.

    The link is that those that see themselves part of the discerning 5% are not only relaxed about the decline of the larger group of the general drinking population they are a member of but many appear to think that decline is a good thing that it may in some way benefit them.

  18. There are not multiple arguments, there is only one, and that is that in a liberal democracy, neither the government nor anyone else has the right to tell free citizens what they can and cannot put into their own body.

    If what you do can be shown to negatively affect other people then there is something of an argument to be had about restrictions and reparations. But
    alcohol is no different in this to any other activity you could name, from driving to skiing to stamp collecting. The principle point remains the same.

    The overwhelming trend over the past 100+ years has been one of ever increasing tolerance and liberalism. The current fashion for demonising alcohol is hopefully only a small blip.

  19. Count me out of that discerning 5%, Cookie. I used to like nothing better than getting pissed up on cheap lager and hitting on ugly girls when I was a student, and I think it is a crying shame that more students nowadays are missing out on this wonderful period.

    Nothing brings a patriotic tear to one's eye faster than returning home from holiday and walking through a city centre to see 100 delirious 18 year old puking up on each other's shoes. I think people who look down on this kind of fun are joyless knobs, frankly. Either they have very short memories or they were very odd youths. Binge drinking is great, its a shame its going out of fashion. CAMRA should start a campaign to bring it back.

  20. "The overwhelming trend over the past 100+ years has been one of ever increasing tolerance and liberalism."

    Up to maybe 20 or 30 years ago that was broadly true. Now we are increasingly seeing the tide being reversed with more and more activities being either banned outright or several restricted.

    Smoking is a prime example, of course, but the list is endless - government web filtering, laws against "being annoying" being just the start.

  21. Really, we have become more liberal and tolerant?

    Morality has certainly changed, and largely for the better. Some things have become more acceptable, some things less.

    It is difficult to argue with what has become less acceptable as I agree with making most of it less acceptable. It is less acceptable to be homophobic, racist, fat and smoke. You may add drink to that list. Society is less tolerant in this respect and isn't it a good thing that we are less tolerant of discriminating on race & sexuality?

    Lots of other things have become more acceptable, but this isn't a trend of everything being more acceptable.

    It's heart warming to discover others support binge drinking on cheap lager, puking on shoes and shagging lairy orange lasses by the wetherspoons bins. I have it on good authority that this is still Mudgies typical Saturday night. If you go out in Stockport, get your lass by the bins early doors to beat him to the prime spot.

    But may I repeat a previous question?

    "So as a drinker in a future world where you are the minority, how are you going to convince the none drinkers to advocate your rights for you? How is advocating your rights going to become shorthand for showing how decent I am?"

    I would add this as well.

    How are you going to put drink into the more acceptable category when it is currently in the becoming less acceptable category?

  22. Isn't being "less tolerant of homophobia and racism" just an inverted way of saying being MORE tolerant of alternative sexualities and different ethnicities?

    Actually I think libertarianism is becoming quite popular amongst the more educated U25s. Its just that they're not quite so vocally shrill about it as the various authoritarian groups. I don't think the decline of alcohol consumption into a minority activity is anything like inevitable; in fact I think it remains highly unlikely.

  23. The key test of libertarianism is not standing up for the things you like doing, but defending people's right to say and do things you don't like, so long as they don't harm others. And "harm" is not synonymous with "offend".

  24. Well yes, I agree with that.

    The line between causing offence and causing harm is a bit blurry (and to some extent a matter of semantics), no? Can harm only be physical?

    If what I am doing is negatively impacting upon someone else in some way, at what point do you draw the line and say enough is enough?

    Ultimately at some point a line has to be drawn and no matter where it is drawn, someone somewhere will think its in the wrong place. Libertarians just traditionally draw the line slightly further in one direction.

  25. @pyo, Society is not simply more accepting of thin people it is less accepting of fat people. One is not the inverse of the other.

    50 years ago if you were fat and gay, your problem was being gay in a society that did like that. Today your problem is being fat.

    The fat gay bloke today has benefited from greater acceptance of his homosexuality but still lost out at the job interview by being fat. You might say society still has a problem with what he is putting in his mouth but cake is more offensive than cock.

    You go tell him society has a general trend of acceptance and social liberalism. Buy him a pie to cheer him up, whilst your at it.

    In a free country, it would not matter and be only your own business.

    Somethings go forward, some backward.

    Had a think how you'd turn the tide of drink acceptance yet?

  26. I'm pretty sure you're still not allowed to refuse someone a job because they're fat Cookie.

    I already answered your question, I wouldn't attempt to defend alcohol consumption on its own, I would simply continue to promote a tolerant and liberal ideology, because it is my opinion that despite the impression you might get from reading some of the newspapers, the majority of the country are already sympathetic towards that viewpoint.

  27. Here you go pyo,

  28. I agree with pyo's libertarian arguments, but isn't this the same guy who has posted many hateful comments on here against smoking and smokers, and in support of blanket smoking bans?!

    He's right that government should stay out of our own choices of how to live and enjoy our lives - even if that puts us in a small minority, or involves some element of risk (as do many things in addition to tobacco and alcohol).

    And Curmudgeon is right that if you defend freedom of choice, it must include freedom for other people to do things you don't like.

    But then you can say: what if them doing what they like, negatively affects me? And this is where authorities are blurring the lines to the point of confusion if not outright hysteria. Some people don't like others smoking in the same room? Let's see what sort of compromise we can work out - improve ventilation and/or have more choice of places to go. But no, instead we're told: that smoker is killing you, as well as trampling on your civil rights, so must be vilified and banned everywhere.

    The trend is for government to step in whenever anything might just possibly be portrayed as impacting someone's health and safety - or even just causing offence.

    Whether there is a more, or less, tolerant and liberal ethos in general, is arguable, but I think there's no doubt that those in authority, generally supported by an unquestioning media, are pushing things more and more in the direction of 'less'.

  29. I have consistently argued in favour of smoking rooms being allowed in pubs where suitable space for them exists on both this and other websites.

  30. This mention of principles reminded me of a joke. A multi billionaire says to a nun "If you suck my cock, I'll give you $100"

    She replies that she cannot do that, it is against her principles, the teachings of Christ. He ups his offer to $1000. He gets the same reply so keeps upping the offer. It gets to $10 Billion.

    The Nun thinks about it. She realizes how many of the poor and distressed she could help with $10 Billion. The clean water she could provide to Africa. The medicines for the sick, the food for the hungry. A higher principle surely? One that Jesus would understand.

    She agrees to the offer. The Billionaire replies

    "Great, you agree the principle, we were only haggling over price"

  31. About 15 years ago I remember sitting in a gay hotel with a group of four gay (male) couples. They were all in decades long relationships and talking about the whether gay people should be able to get married. They did not all agree that it was discrimination to say that marriage should just be between a man and a woman. But how the zeitgeist has changed! I have no idea about how you go about changing the zeitgeist but if I were a wannabe polygamist, I would argue that as marriage is no longer just a union of man and woman, how is it that polygamists can't get married but same sex people can? I mean to say, why can't I marry three woman and two men? And why can't the three woman and two men I want to marry also be married to yet more people? After all , marriage is now , clearly, not just between one man and one woman. As Cooking points out , its about zeitgeist and how do you change it?

  32. cl may not wish to make alcohol from sugar, but the fact that home wine making was very popular in the 70s and would be again were alcohol banned makes a ban unlikely. It. Needn't involve gangsters - just parsnips, sugar and yeast. Growing your own tobacco, despite its growing popularity, is never likely to become widespread, but home wine making will. From my experience at our work Xmas party, most indigenous British young people still like a good drink.


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