Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Keep your powder dry

This month we are yet again being subjected to Alcohol Concern’s Dry January campaign which aims to encourage people to give up alcohol entirely during January (and hopefully beyond that too). In past years, this has just been seen as an irritant, but it seems to be here to stay, and brewers and pub operators are coming up with ways to turn the slogan round to their advantage. For example, Dark Star have launched a special “dry” version of their renowned Hophead ale, and cidermakers have been emphasising their range of “dry” interpretations.

More and more pubs are using the “Tryanuary” or “Try January” themes to encourage people to come in and try something a little out of the ordinary. Incidentally, while I’m aware these two campaigns have different origins, their purpose is much the same, and surely someone needs to knock their collective heads together to make them combine their efforts. One of the key reasons for the success of the beer duty campaign was that everybody in the industry united around the same message.

And this statement on the FaceBook page of RedNev’s local pub in Southport, the Guest House, shows that pubs have given it some thought and come up with a considered response.

We believe that a responsible approach to drinking is the only way to go, and so would like to state our position on ‪#‎Dryanuary‬.

Dryanuary is an ill-conceived scheme whereby tens of thousands of people across Britain will be convinced that, by boycotting their local pubs, they'll actually be achieving something. What really happens, guys, is that these businesses lose money in their toughest period of the year and we lose more local pubs. Instead of giving up for a month, why not just have 11 pints when you go out instead of 12?

‪#‎Tryanuary‬ is designed to protect our local pubs against the devastating effects of a scheme that seems intent on destroying our industry.

"If you’re considering Dryanuary please fully consider the ramifications."

Make no mistake, this campaign has gone well beyond appealing to people’s individual conscience to become a direct attempt to undermine the pub and brewing trades, as I have said in this month’s column in Opening Times. January has always been the quietest time of the year for pubs, and encouraging large numbers of people to boycott them is just going to drive more to the wall. It is no good saying that people can go to the pub and have soft drinks, as realistically they are never going to match their spending on alcohol, and many might feel that if they want to avoid alcohol entirely it’s best to avoid the temptation of the pub.

In this context, this open letter from Alcohol Concern to pubs really is an example of the most disgusting hypocrisy. Ultimately, they don’t give a toss about pubs, they want to see them all closed down or at best reduced to emasculated dining venues. Who has ever made a point of visiting a particular pub because of its choice of soft drinks? No pub should have anything to do with promoting or encouraging this campaign.

It’s even worse for small breweries. Pubs can supposedly fall back on food and soft drink sales, but that isn’t an option for brewers. They are also often critically dependent on keeping cashflow going. Drastically reducing their income for one month in a year will be a real kick in the balls.

It’s also disturbing that Dry January are referring to giving up alcohol as “one less sin”. Sin isn’t a very fashionable concept nowadays, and many things that were once considered sinful are now generally accepted. But is drinking alcohol per se a sin? Really? Presumably that is why Jesus turned the wine into water at the wedding at Cana. Oh wait...

In the past, it’s been possible for alcohol producers to claim that “drinking in moderation is compatible with a healthy lifestyle” but, especially with the recent reduction in the risible official consumption guidelines, this is becoming an ever-shrinking figleaf. If you can only drink one and a half pints of weakish beer a day, and are expected to have two days off a week, it seems hardly worth bothering. As I argued here, if the drinks industry tries to directly engage with the antis on the health issue, they will always lose.

Instead, we need to encourage a more sensible and mature approach to risk. The media are full of stories saying that x or y will double your risk of cancer, but that risk usually turns out to be absolutely infinitesimal. Twice sweet FA is still sweet FA. As the American satirist P. J. O’Rourke said, “Everything that's fun in life is dangerous. And everything that isn't fun is dangerous too. It's impossible to be alive and safe.”

Of course he was quite right. Everything in life involves some risk. If we never took any risks, we would never achieve anything. If you stay in the house, you’re at less risk of being involved in a traffic accident. But you may die from starvation. Most sporting activites, notably rugby, horse-riding and mountaineering, carry a much greater risk of injury or death than simply abstaining. But we accept that people gain pleasure and fulfilment from these things and, if they choose to engage in them, that’s their decision.

Exactly the same is true of alcohol, and indeed any other alleged dietary “sins” such as eating chocolate bars or sausages. Yes, it may involve a bit of risk, but unless you really overdo it, that risk is pretty small. Risk in human life can never be wholly eliminated, and surely, as adults, we should be trusted to make our own decisions about which enjoyable activities we choose to engage in. It’s also worth remembering that the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence points to the overall health risk from alcohol following a J-curve (image courtesy of Christopher Snowdon). And you have to drink a fair bit more than the official guidelines to equal the risk of total abstention. It may well be true that “there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.” But that includes zero.

We recently mourned the death of Ian Fraser Kilmister, better known as Lemmy, who actually began his musical career in Stockport. He was hardly a role model for moderation of any kind, but he said “Everything that is pleasant in life is dangerous.” And he was right.

5 comments:

  1. Well said, and well argued.

    Most people I know who are giving up in January (my wife's friends mainly) hardly drunk anyway, certainly not in our village pubs. On the other hand, the case studies wheeled out by the BBC at this time of year invariably relate to really hazardous drinkers - 2 bottles of wine/bottle of whisky a day types, with no recognition of moderation between the alcoholic/teetotal extremes.


    Never knew Lemmy had Stockport links.

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  2. In practice I agree most of those pursuing Dry January will be light/occasional drinkers, so the real risk to pubs isn't that great.

    But that doesn't detract from the overall aim of the campaign.

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  3. Good to see my local mentioned on your blog; cheers.

    I don't know anyone who takes the official guidelines seriously. The killjoys are so locked into their mindset that they think that lowering the male level to the female one will actually make people think: "Oh, the level of drinking that I have always ignored has been reduced. I'd better take the pledge."

    If anyone thinks that these are no more than worthy health campaigners who might have let their enthusiasm run away, think again. These people are seriously anti-alcohol.

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  4. I wonder about the methodology of these "safe drinking" studies. The have to measure the alcohol consumption of a lot of people over a considerable period and that can only be self reported. But drinkers, especially heavy drinkers, are not renown for either their ability to remember how much they drunk or their honesty in reporting it.

    So unless the report corrects for misreporting - and how can it - the so called safe levels are probably to low by perhaps 100%.

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  5. @Dave - I seem to recall the ever-perceptive Mr Snowdon making that very point in a blog post.

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