Friday, 17 January 2020

Drinking with the enemy

For a number of years, we have seen the Dry January campaign run by the public health lobby, which aims to encourage people to abstain from alcohol entirely throughout the month and hopefully to take stock of their drinking in a wider sense. Understandably, the licensed trade have viewed this as a threat to their business, especially as January is one of the slackest months for trade and a time that sees many pubs financially struggling. As a response, various initiatives have been devised, including Drinkuary (which now seems to have faded away) and, most prominently, Tryanuary. This aims not to encourage people to drink more, but to take the opportunity to try out new and unfamiliar beers and venues.

However, we are now seeing voices raised that are critical of this approach, arguing that to oppose Dry January comes across as disrespectful and unhelpful to people who are genuinely trying to reduce their consumption or grappling with alcohol-related problems, not to mention being potentially damaging to business, For example, see this post on Bring on the Beer, a blog which I have to admit I hadn’t previously come across.

I wouldn't for one moment decry desperate business owners for being miffed at a campaign that they perceive as seeking to undermine their footfall at a needy time of year. But I would like to know if it's been proven that that's where their ire should be directed. Blunt, hostile rejection of the "other" camp is completely illogical and does more harm than any abstinence campaign ever could. If a pub does put out a tweet saying "Forget (or stronger) Dryanuary" it makes it less likely that folks will come into their pub to partake of a soft drink or two, so they're basically shooting themselves in the foot.
The post makes some nuanced points, not least that Dry January is unlikely to reach those most in need of a break from alcohol, and is well worth reading. However, it is important to distinguish the individual from the general. On the personal level, people may well wish to reduce their overall alcohol consumption, or give it a miss for a while, and that needs to be respected. They shouldn’t be badgered into have a drink when they don’t want one, or told that they’re letting the side down, and pubs should offer products that enable them to make a non-alcoholic choice, which of course in general they do.

But Dry January isn’t just about individual responsibility. It is a campaign that has been consciously crafted by the anti-drink lobby with the declared intention of not just allowing people something of a detox but to review their entire relationship with alcohol. It takes advantage of the fact that, after Christmas and New Year, people maybe will feel they’ve overdone it a bit, and may also find themselves short of funds, so abstinence becomes doubly attractive. In the past, anti-drink campaigns often focused on morality and the role of drink as a step on the road to ruin, but now they have been subtly redirected to capitalise on contemporary concerns about health and general feelings of purity and well-being.

This objective is made explicit in this blogpost, which also reiterates the point that Dry January does little to help those most in need of it.

For two campaigns aimed at helping beer sellers and alcoholics, it seems that neither of them actually have much effect. It can be argued that Tryanuary doesn't drive more folk to pubs in January than those who would go anyway, and Dryanuary is mostly partaken by folk who sensibly drink in moderation. Which means that, when you strip away the superficiality of likes, retweets, shares, headlines and humblebragging social media posts, the real world effect is negligible at best.

So what does this mean for the value of Dry January? It’s potentially helpful for a lot of people at an individual level, but for me its key contribution is about culture change, which then provides a space for policy change.

First, it prompts everyone to think about their alcohol consumption, and that fits perfectly with Alcohol Change UK’s admirable goal of getting everyone to make well-informed decisions.

Second, it provides an opportunity for commentators and policymakers to note that alcohol isn’t just any other commodity, and for all its strengths the individual-focused approach of Dry January doesn’t work for everyone, so we need more.

“Its key contribution is about culture change, which then provides a space for policy change.” Mark those words very carefully.

Some initiatives proposed by the anti-drink lobby may actually make sense. But they should always be taken with a large pinch of salt, because we know all too well what their ultimate objective is. There is no acceptable end-point short of outright prohibition, and whatever you agree with, they will always come back for more. Therefore, while it may well be prudent for pubs to keep their heads down during Dry January, and make good business sense to offer alcohol-free products, embracing the concept is effectively getting into bed with those who wish to destroy you.

The point has also been made, for example in the blogpost I linked to above, that, given the greatly improved choice and quality of alcohol-free beers available now, doing without alcohol doesn’t require as much of a sacrifice as it once did. There’s certainly a fair amount of truth in that – it’s no longer a question of having just a limited selection of bland ersatz lagers, although in practice the range available in the typical pub is still pretty narrow.

However, it misses the point that the fundamental reason people drink beer is because it contains alcohol. While people may have entirely valid reasons for choosing an alcohol-free beer, and I sometimes drink it myself, it’s always to some extent a distress purchase. They are intended to mimic, as far as possible, the experience of drinking a standard beer, but with that crucial element omitted. Ideally, all other things being equal, people would prefer to be drinking a normal-strength equivalent.

Without standard beer, there would be no alcohol-free beer, just as there would be no decaffeinated coffee without regular coffee or nut roasts without meat roasts. One is a mere echo of the other. While people may be happy enough with an alcohol-free beer if they find themselves in the pub, they’re not going to go out of their way to seek them out. Nobody is going to go on AFB pub crawls. So it’s always going to be an inferior substitute that falls short of the real thing, but will constantly remind you of it.

People who choose to switch to AFBs during January are not, in practice, going to spend as much time or money in pubs, so it is still undermining the trade to some extent. There may be the odd exception, but they will be vanishingly few. The best way to cut down on alcohol is simply not to go to the pub in the first place. And it should always be remembered that, without alcoholic drinks, and the people who consume them, there would be no pubs.


  1. Our drinking culture will eventually be akin to some Muslim countries. Alcohol is legal, advertising is banned, taxes are heavier, few pubs outside towns. You can have beer but there will be much less choice and there will be stigma.

    1. Yes, I do fear that, in a generation, pubs and bars as we know them will have retreated into a small rump in affluent urban areas. All the rest of the country will be left with is casual dining restaurants with some of the tradirional trappings of pubs. Most people will struggle to comprehend the idea of just going to a pub for a drink.

  2. In small towns there might be two or three pubs.

  3. Essentially you will be paying £5 in a town centre pub. No more than four.

  4. Tut tut. "A large pinch of salt" would take you well above the recommended daily level of sodium. :-)

  5. I think you're pretty spot on. The point of the exercise is to establish a health rather than religious based morality where drinking is a sin and abstinence is a virtue. It's well thought out being punted at the exact time most people want a quiet month.

    The bleating of pubs complaining will have little effect. People don't support pubs. Pubs provide a service people want or don't. There is a seasonality to the trade and pubs have just enjoyed a bumper seasonal period. Those that haven't don't understand the business they are in. It's like complaining the seaside dodgems are quiet in winter.

  6. "There is a seasonality to the trade"

    There didn't used to be, no.

    1. I think there always was to some extent, especially with a peak in the run-up to Christmas, but it has certainly intensified post-July 2007.

  7. Drinkuary faded away because it was mainly just me and I could never really seem to get it to have much traction and life got busy with other stuff. Also with the more organised likes of Tryanuary seeming to be picking up the mantel my humble efforts seemed to be less called for.

  8. Very insightful stuff, Mudge, particularly from (I think) a non-smoking drinker who one would normally expect to be blissfully unaware of “the process” – particularly the early stages of it - as it wouldn’t have affected them personally as it did smokers, who have been shouting from the rooftops for years that the next stop on the Slippery Slope was likely to be alcohol-imbibers (usually to folks with their heads buried deep in the sand). Admittedly, the anti-obesity crowd have given the anti-booze lot something of a run for their money, and even seem to be in the lead at the moment, but the way these people work, even if the anti-booze brigade have to wait until the anti-obesity crowd have had their fill (no pun intended) of bans and taxes and restrictions and state handouts, then like Schwarzenegger – they’ll be back, so don’t any of you get too comfortable and let your guard down!

    Also tellingly spot-on was your earlier post where you warned about the number of drinkers dropping to a “critical” percentage whereby policy-makers and the campaigners who hector them feel emboldened to push for restrictions which would have been unthinkable a few years previously. The anti-drink lobby seem determined to mimic almost completely the anti-smoking lobby in words, statistics, insinuations, and reported “research” results in an attempt to achieve the same level of regulation and “can’t do” rules towards this, their own particular bugbear. Many of their articles and pronouncements could almost have been lifted wholesale from the articles and pronouncements from anti-smoking campaigners in the days before they really got the bit between their teeth. Anti-booze even admits this openly when they liken their own “health concerns” to those of the early anti-smoking campaigners and opines that it would be a good thing for alcohol to be treated the same way as, now, tobacco is. Beware murmurings of “passive drinking victims” (my bet would by linking alcohol inextricably - natch - to vehicle accidents, domestic violence, street disorder, crime etc etc) – these need to be refuted as early and as stridently as possible. Costs to the NHS (already raised on several occasions) are also dangerous signs and should also not be allowed to go mainstream without challenge. Oh, and watch for the introduction of any manifestation of “for the sake of the cheeldren” in any form. All of these very effectively raise the self-righteous indignation of the public way above the normal “if it’s only harming you then, fine – fill your boots” attitude, and, once these people have a large enough number of active and vocal converts to the anti-alcohol cause amongst the public adding to the chorus of disapproval, they will move everything up a gear. Believe me, they will. Just ask any smoker ....

  9. "It is a campaign that has been consciously crafted by the anti-drink lobby." This statement is false. Alcohol Change UK is not anti-drink. It's not even anti-drunkenness. It's only against alcohol HARM. Dry January is shown to be highly effective for those that need it most - people who actually want to cut down and have tried many times, but who need a different approach to enable them to drink healthily and moderately. It's all about citizen choice and regaining control. I am immensely proud of Dry January's ability to help hundreds of thousands of people to move from unhealthy, dependent drinking to moderate, healthy, enjoyable drinking. The fact is, if you're against Dry January, you're against supporting people with drinking problems to regain control. This statement is spot on: "On the personal level, people may well wish to reduce their overall alcohol consumption, or give it a miss for a while, and that needs to be respected."

    1. Alcohol Change UK traces its roots back to Victorian temperance organisations. Given that it has consistently advocated increasing the price, restricting the availability and curbing the promotion of alcoholic drinks, I would say that it fully qualifies as "anti-drink". It's rather like organisations that claim to be in favour of "road safety" but see the way of achieving that as a signficant reduction in the use of motor vehicles.

      But I suppose I should see it as a compliment that you have deigned to comment on my blog :-)

    2. "if you're against Dry January, you're against supporting people with drinking problems"

      you can do better than that. if you're against the temperance movement you are responsible for all the domestic abuse and no better than a rapist.

      try that line.

      maybe "Won't somebody, please, think of the children!"

    3. The key phrase is "on the personal level". If people want to cut down on the booze, they can do so, without a noisy campaign. Or do you think they are incapable without the assistance of the self-righteous? I would refer you to the words of C S Lewis on the sidebar of Mudgie's blog.

  10. While I agree with lots of this, there's a few odd moments. Apologies for the long post, but I want to genuinely engage with this. First, I'm not sure anyone who knows me or has read my blog seriously would characterise me as anti-drink! I've even said there's a legitimate role for the industry in the policymaking process, so I think this is a bit odd. It also doesn't seem unreasonable to support the idea of 'culture change' understood as leading to people making more conscious choices about their consumption of a substance that, for all it brings me joy, brings plenty of physical and mental health harm for lots of people. I'm pretty happy with my higher-than-average / increasing-risk consumption, but I know lots of people who, after taking the time to think about it (often after a break from alcohol), discover they'd prefer to be in the 'lower risk' bracket. As another comment put it, in this economy pubs stand or fall based on the market (which is obviously shaped by regulation). If fewer people drink alcohol, then it's likely they'll struggle. And this links with the point is your more recent post about visits to pubs not involving alcohol. I disagree with your point about 'Paula': I think pubs are still excellently placed to capitalise on people who don't drink much or even don't drink alcohol at all. Last night the main customers of the pub I was in were from choirs, bands and bellringers. Where else are those people going to go after a practice for a chat? Pubs still have that market cornered, and can adapt. And we're drinking far more per head than we were for most of the 20th century. The problem is more about who, where and when, not abstinence.

    1. There's a difference between helping individuals understand and maybe modify their own consumption patterns, and campaigning for whole population measures which will affect the price, availability and promotion of alcoholic drinks across the board.

      Yes, of course many people use pubs for social purposes that may not include drinking alcohol, but those pubs would not be there in the first place without catering for people who do drink alcohol. That is their core purpose. Take that away, and they become something else.

      Historically, the low consumption levels of the 1920-60 period were an aberration. And per capita consumption has been falling for about fifteen years, and is now back to 1980 levels, which is hardly a horror story.

      I'd also add that the blogpost implies that most alcohol consumption is to some degree problematical.


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