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.