Saturday, 23 January 2016

Is brewing immoral?

There’s a rather hysterical article in today’s Guardian claiming that the alcohol industry makes most of its profits from “problem drinkers”. In a sense this is no more than a statement of the bleeding obvious that they will make more money from customers who buy more of their product. And the definition of “people whose drinking is destroying or risking their health” is anyone who consumes more than the official guidelines, which includes many whose mortality risk is better than that of teetotallers. It is basically just a regurgitation of a press release from the Alcohol Health Alliance, who can’t be regarded as impartial observers.

This does in some people’s minds raise the question of how alcohol manufacturers can sleep at night when they are selling products to people who consume them in a self-destructive way. Or are they just evil monsters happy to profit from others’ misfortunes? The correct response to this is surely that alcoholic drinks are legal products that are consumed by most in a moderate fashion and bring pleasure to vast numbers of people. Adults must be treated as empowered individuals responsible for their own life decisions, not as children who must be protected from themselves. People who develop a drinking problem deserve help, but it should not be used as a justification for imposing restrictions on everyone else. And it is well nigh-impossible to draw a clear dividing line between products targeted at “responsible” and “irresponsible” consumers.

But it is part of a process of delegitimising alcohol producers. The official line is steadily edging towards the position that no level of consumption can be regarded as safe, and when that happens, brewers, vintners and distillers will be making all their profits from problem drinkers. This is what has already happened to the tobacco industry – it is regarded as a “toxic trade” and excluded from any involvement in policy discussions about the tobacco market. The last cigarette factory in the UK recently closed, but many will have said “good riddance”. How long will it be before the producers of alcoholic drinks are viewed in the same way?

Edit: the article is dissected here by Christopher Snowdon with his usual aplomb.


  1. A quite incredibly bad article. Two things in particular struck me because they seem so glaringly wrong at first sight and Chris Snowdon goes into detail about them: both relate to Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.
    Firstly she says, “Why else would alcohol producers spend millions of pounds on advertising each year encouraging people to drink more”. Well, companies advertise things like toothpaste and tampons but I doubt if they think that overall consumption will increase. They advertise to keep their name in public view, to increase their market share by product switching and to introduce new lines.
    Then she says, “Evidence from Canada showed that a 10% increase in alcohol prices led to a 32% reduction in alcohol-related deaths.” It’s not clear from the article that this related to an increase in minimum pricing, applicable in that part of Canada, but I don’t think that matters: Chris Snowdon points out that these figures are entirely bogus but did you need to be told that? Is it credible that a 10% increase in prices would lead to such a dramatic outcome?
    There is something that should be very concerning about this. Even reasonably intelligent people are persuaded by the opinions of others in areas where they have little knowledge. Does Katherine Brown believe what she says about advertising and pricing? If she does she is a fool, which I doubt, so it is a position driven by a moral, political or funding agenda.

  2. Making a substance you know is harmful, a poison and knowing it creates a social problem for a significant portion of users is a moral question.

    Little acknowledgement is made by drink enthusiasts that for some it ruins lives. In the criticism of products that appear to be aimed at problem drinkers, little acknowledgment is made that those people started on the road to their problem enjoying more expensive luxury drinks with a social caveat until the drink caused a reduction in economic circumstance, job loss, divorce, that put them on the Spesh.

    A feature of CAMRA branch magazines is the regular obituaries for mid 50s blokes. All well liked, all the life and soul of the party. All heavy drinkers every night of the week.

  3. @Cookie - loads of products are open to abuse - cars, pork pies, armaments etc. If you find that morally troubling, then best not to get involved in that particular industry.

    As long as something is legal, someone will be happy to supply it, even if "reputable" companies have been scared off.

    And all alcoholic drinks are potentially open to abuse from problem drinkers. I've made the point before that most drinks associated with problem drinking had entirely respectable origins - Spesh was originally brewed in honour of that famous pisshead Winston Churchill.


  4. “A feature of CAMRA branch magazines is the regular obituaries for mid 50s blokes. All well liked, all the life and soul of the party. All heavy drinkers every night of the week.”

    Whilst no-one would argue that drink undoubtedly played a role in the premature demise of these fine fellows, I would suggest there were other contributory factors at work here as well. An unhealthy diet, being over-weight and a general lack of exercise would not have helped either.

    People must be allowed to make their own choices in life; however dubious these choices sometimes are. The information about healthy lifestyles is out there, if people care to read it. It is not the job of government, the Institute of Alcohol Studies, the Portman Group or even the Campaign for Real Ale to lecture them, set artificial limits with no scientific basis, or to impose restrictions on the vast majority who are already sensible in the way they live their lives.

  5. @Mudge Wow, I never said I found anything troubling. Only that you could put a question mark over matters of ethics for the making and distributing of any harmful substance. Guns, cars, booze, drugs. However the question mark in your blog title is misleading as a discussion of the ethics and possible responsibilities towards those suffering are clearly not what you were after.

    Simply stating personal responsibility is a lame argument for any substance considered addictive. You might want to develop stronger arguments if you want to crack the puritans on this one. A good start is here if you want the tools Gotta love wiki

    Develop a stronger argument for harmful addictive substances and why the government should not replace alcohol with a harm free synthentic alternative. We'll need it in ten years.

    @Paul The biggest factor after alcohol in the demise of these people is that they are single. No one to moderate behaviour or more significantly phone 999 on the first stroke/heart attack. Had they been married they would likely have got to hospital, and possibly in time.

  6. You make a good point Cookie, by connecting the demise of these CAMRA stalwarts with them being single. It’s one I hadn’t thought of, even though this scenario of a bloke living on his own unfortunately played out with a dedicated member I knew quite well.

    A group of his friends called round for him one night, as they were supposed to be going out for a drink Concerned when they received no answer, and unable to contact him by phone, they called the police. He was found, still in bed, having passed away after a heart attack the night before.

    I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead, but he’d received several warning signs, not least of which was him requiring a heart by-pass operation. After the op he was warned that he needed to change his lifestyle, with particular regard to his eating and drinking. Like you say, there was no-one in his life to moderate these habits, and of course no-one to dial 999 in his hour of need.


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