Turning drinkers into social lepers

A Coalition of the Concerned is determined that those who enjoy a drink should join smokers as modern outcasts.

And so the UK state’s anti-booze cruise trundles on.

This time it was the turn of Alcohol Concern, a Department of Health-funded agency, to complain that we live in a society where drinking alcohol is just not difficult or unpleasant enough. They’d certainly done their research. Apparently, just before Christmas, a team of the Concerned had visited a branch of every supermarket in Cardiff. What they found shook them to their arid cores.

Booze was being sold everywhere. Not just down dark, secluded alcohol aisles. No, booze was to be found throughout the stores. There were bottles of wine next to the oven-ready lasagne, four-packs of beer near the chicken goujons, bottles of whisky within swigging distance of loaves of Hovis. As you can well imagine, Alcohol Concern chief executive Don Shenker was not only Concerned, he was disgusted. Referring to the supermarkets’ willingness to plonk plonk next to the fish counter, he said: ‘Such practices promote alcohol as a normal commodity, like any other type of food or drink.’ This, Shenker continued, pushes ‘the idea that a relaxing meal should be accompanied by an alcoholic drink’. Like flies on, ahem, ‘research’, the British Medical Association (BMA) was quick to join the alcohol-free party. BMA head of science and ethics Dr Vivienne Nathanson stated: ‘We have to start denormalising alcohol – it is not like other types of food and drink.’

The specific demand – to have separate alcohol areas in supermarkets – is as petty as it is predictable, coming as it does from a group of the professionally Concerned. But the general thrust behind the demand should not be so easily dismissed. That is, a state-backed coalition of the aloof seems intent on ‘denormalising’ alcohol. The means are many, from implementing a minimum price for alcohol to demanding that twentysomethings prove their age, but the end is the same: they want drinking and drinkers stigmatised. They want the consumption of alcohol to be looked upon not as ‘the natural accompaniment to a relaxing meal’, but as an activity as shameful and embarrassing as, well, smoking.

After all, it was the state-led war against smokers that provided the template for ‘denormalisation’. As a 2007 academic analysis of the changed perception of smoking put it, ‘social denormalisation [strategies seek] to change the broad social norms around using tobacco – to push tobacco use out of the charmed circle of normal, desirable practice to being an abnormal practice’ (1). And very successful the strategy’s been, too. Malodorous, selfish, littering creatures, cuticles stained through years of feckless indulgence, smokers today are only a bell short of leperdom. The shift in perceptions is striking. Once woven into the everyday fabric of our lives, whether in a pub or at the cinema, the act of smoking has become a shamefaced act, carried out outside, under purpose-built canopies.

Yes, the talk at the time of the smoking ban was all about ‘second-hand’ smoke, and the supposed health threat it poses. But given how flimsy such claims were, as the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee concluded in 2006, it seems the trumped threat of second-hand smoke merely served the further end of making smoking socially unacceptable. Interviewed on the eve of the smoking ban in 2007, then chief medical officer Liam Donaldson was clearly excited about the possibility of more measures, from a ban on tobacco advertising to graphic pictures on fag packets. His objective was telling, however: ‘if we want to go further we have got to reinforce all these other tobacco measures and denormalise smoking completely’. Little wonder that in 2009 the then chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Professor Steve Field, was moved to call smoking in cars when kids are present ‘a form of child abuse’. Smokers, it seems, were fair game. You are not a mum or a dad enjoying a cigarette having been to the cinema with your kid. No, nothing so mundane, so normal. You’re abnormal, deviant, a child abuser.

Just as smoking has been rendered socially abhorrent, so drinking seems to be undergoing a similar assault. Every mean-spirited measure, every report highlighting how much alcohol consumption costs the NHS, every single story hacked out of the cliché of binge-drinking Britain, serves to make the rather mundane act of drinking alcohol that little bit less acceptable, that little bit less normal. We are to be shamed into changing our boozy ways.

This surreptitious, state-driven attempt to change our behaviour is not due to some authoritarian impulse, however. Too many on the right had been keen to locate the bossy politics of behaviour in the semi-Stalinist past of certain members of the former New Labour government. Yet, as the moves to implement alcohol minimum pricing in England indicate, the Lib-Con coalition are hardly letting people decide for themselves how best to live their lives. This shouldn’t be a surprise. The attempt to change our habits and norms, has less to do with authoritarianism than with a state desperate for a do-gooding mission. It’s just that this mission, this raison d’être, involves protecting us, the stupid masses, not from foreign others, but from ourselves.

And it’s this view of people, of civil society, as a malleable mass of the easily-led, that the idea of a ‘denormalisation’ strategy betrays. It assumes that what we consider normal is something that can be modified, tweaked and developed from above. It assumes, in short, that the norms by which we live are not our own. We are simply not to be trusted with deciding what is and is not normal. That is a vision of society that is enough to turn anyone to drink.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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Footnotes and references

(1) Hammond, D et al (2006) ‘Tobacco denormalization and industry beliefs among smokers from four countries’, American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 31, pp225-232