Europe to crack down on ‘passive drinking’, says leaked report

Our reporter in Brussels reveals that EC officials are plotting to make drinking as socially unacceptable as smoking.

Bruno Waterfield

Topics Politics

The campaigns to combat the effects of ‘passive smoking’ are widely credited for Europe’s growing number of smoking bans. Now alcohol is in the sights of the public health lobbyists, and they have invented the concept of ‘passive drinking’ as their killer argument.

I have seen a leaked draft report for the European Commission, which is due to be published some time in June. It makes claims about the high environmental or social toll of alcohol, the ‘harm done by someone else’s drinking’. The report is likely to inform proposals for a European Union alcohol strategy later this year.

Dr Peter Anderson, the report’s lead author, who has a background in the World Health Organisation (WHO) and plays a leading role in Tobacco Free Initiative Europe, tells me that the concept of social harm takes the alcohol debate beyond the traditional limits of individual choice and addiction. ‘You can make the argument that what an individual drinks is up to them, provided they understand what they are doing and bearing in mind that alcohol is a dependency-producing drug…. But when you talk about harm to others then that is a societal concern and justification for doing something about it. I think that is an important argument. If there was not harm to others then the argument gets a little less powerful’ (1).

The draft report doesn’t mince its words when it comes to estimating the social harms of alcohol. ‘The total tangible cost of alcohol to EU society in 2003 was estimated to be €125bn (€79bn-€220bn), equivalent to 1.3 per cent GDP, and which is roughly the same value as that found recently for tobacco.’ (2) The report further highlights the broader social cost of drinking, with the proviso that ‘these estimates are subject to a wide margin of error, [and] they are likely to be an underestimate of the true gross social cost of alcohol’.

‘The intangible costs show the value people place on pain, suffering and lost life that occurs due to the criminal, social and health harms caused by alcohol’, says the report. ‘In 2003 these were estimated to be €270bn, with other ways of valuing the same harms producing estimates between €150bn and €760bn.’

As Anderson indicates, emphasising the alleged social rather than individual consequences of alcohol will be key to the new campaign. The theme of ‘passive drinking’ was flagged up early on. A Commission working group on alcohol health met in Luxembourg on 9 June 2004 to discuss, among other things, early progress on Anderson’s report. Draft minutes note that the participants, EU and national officials and various experts, were on the hunt for ‘main reasons why there is a need to reduce alcohol-related harm’.

‘EU experts agreed that the strategy needed to show more clearly the facts concerning harm on third parties (both social and health), including children and other family members of persons with alcohol-related problems. Experts said that there, for information and pedagogic reasons, was a need for a good phrase to explain what we mean by third-party harm in the alcohol field – reference was made to the phrase “passive smoking”.’ (3)

Just six days later, the Alcohol Policy Network (APN), a Commission-funded Eurocare project where Anderson is a staff member (4), met in Warsaw. Again, minutes show there was a strong consensus on the propaganda, or ‘advocacy’, merits of finding an equivalent term to ‘passive smoking’ for the alcohol debate. ‘The effect of alcohol on non-drinkers could be used more in advocacy. A need for effective terminology for this point was identified (eg. “passive drinking”), and APN members were invited to submit any suggestions they had in this regard’ (5).

By October 2004, the theme was established in a Eurocare submission to the Commission. ‘Alcohol not only harms the user, but those surrounding the user, including the unborn child, children, family members, and the sufferers of crime, violence and drink-driving accidents: this can be termed environmental alcohol damage or “passive drinking”.’ (6)

Dr Peter Anderson now distances himself a little from the term ‘passive drinking’, while remaining true to the core idea. ‘Passive drinking as a term does not really work. Like you have environmental tobacco smoke, I suppose you could [talk about] environmental alcohol damage. I have used that term…but there may be a better way of doing it’, he admits.

In the draft report, the concept is intact. The report claims that as alcohol consumption, or ‘other people’s’ drinking, increases, so too does social harm. ‘Harms done by someone else’s drinking range from social nuisances such as being kept awake at night through more serious consequences such as marital harm, child abuse, crime, violence and homicide. Generally the higher the level of alcohol consumption, the more serious is the crime or injury.’

Passive or environmental, the figures Anderson has pulled together for the EU are pretty scary. Drink is responsible for 2,000 homicides, four out of 10 of Europe’s annual murders. ‘The economic cost of alcohol-attributable crime has been estimated to be €33bn in the EU for 2003….while the intangible cost of the physical and psychological effects of crime has been valued at €9bn – €37bn.’ Children, too, are passive victims of drinking. ‘Many of the harms caused by alcohol are borne by people other than the drinker responsible. This includes 60,000 underweight births, as well as 16 per cent of child abuse and neglect, and five to nine million children in families adversely affected by alcohol’, says the report’s summary.

But while arguments have raged over a causal relationship between alcohol and crime since the nineteenth century, evidence for a connection has remained thin. ‘Questions of how alcohol exerts its criminogenic influence have never been satisfactorily answered… [all that can be concluded is] alcohol does not directly cause crime but that it may be implicated indirectly’, argues a study cited in the Oxford Handbook of Criminology (7).

The link made by campaigners between alcohol and crime today, whether violence or child abuse, follows not from hard facts but from a subjective outlook that sees human characteristics as damaging in general. And if human beings, particularly when under the influence of stimulants, are destructive, then, the argument goes, social intervention must follow. The idea that almost any activity – drinking, eating, speaking, even thinking – can cause harm is often blown out of proportion and used to generate frightening figures and policies.

Most violent crimes are committed by men; should males therefore be subject to special restrictive laws? Domestic violence mostly takes place in private homes; should privacy be abolished? Claiming that aspects of everyday life, such as drinking, automatically leads to ‘harm’ takes away from the responsibility of individual lawbreakers for what they have done, and thus makes for bad policy. Should all 85 per cent of Europe’s citizens who drink – that’s at least 387 million of us – face restrictions because of the tiny minority who commit the 2,000 homicides dubiously attributed to alcohol?

In a twist of irony probably lost on po-faced public health types, the expression ‘passive drinking’ seems to have originated as a spoof in two ‘Peter Simple’ columns in the UK Daily Telegraph in 2002 and 2003, written by journalist Michael Wharton (8). Mocking the rise of nonsense research to justify social measures, he wrote about research work being carried out by ‘Dr Ron Hardware’ at ‘Nerdley University’. ‘They were the first to discover the scourge of “passive drinking”, showing by painstaking experiments and finely adjusted statistics that it was just as deadly as “passive smoking” and equally capable of causing cancer and innumerable other ills’ (9).

Also, Soldier, ‘magazine of the British Army’, generated some shock and awe with a prescient April’s Fool story in 2006, about a looming booze ban to counter passive drinking (10). ‘This is another big brother idea taking in the problems of the minority and laying it squarely on the shoulders of the majority’, wrote one outraged serviceman who didn’t spot the joke. Today, it’s no longer a joke – European officials are plotting to make ‘passive drinking’ a reality.

Many of the ideas behind the latest European attempts to demonise drinking have much older, hoary antecedents. Some of the arguments and organisations involved go back to 1853. The Commission tender for the report went to the British Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS), an organisation with close links to Alliance House, venerable temperance campaigners. This relationship has already raised some eyebrows (11). It epitomises the convergence between public health campaigners and old-style moralistic prohibitionists. Alliance House was founded in 1853 by Quaker cotton manufacturer Nathaniel Card to work for the prohibition of alcohol. Inspired by prohibition in the US, his campaign soon gathered momentum and the Alliance became a political force to be reckoned with. But, thankfully for us today, Card and his friends were critiqued by John Stuart Mill and other progressive humanists.

In 1857 – the year that Mill’s classic essay On Liberty was published – the Alliance was not seeking outright prohibition of alcohol but rather was trying to establish key arguments about the social harm of drinking. Today’s campaigners use strikingly similar tactics (12). Anderson’s arguments on social harm are similar to those used by the Alliance 150 years ago. ‘If anything invades my social rights, certainly the traffic in strong drink does’, wrote the secretary of the Alliance, as quoted by Mill. ‘It destroys my primary right of security by constantly creating and stimulating social disorder…. It impedes my moral and intellectual development, by surrounding my path with dangers.’

Mill took issue with the idea that drinking was a social act rather than simply a trade in alcohol. He did back limited restrictions so long as they didn’t have an intended prohibitive effect on individuals. He classed drinking as an individual act, for right or wrong, along with religion, opinion or conscience and other ‘experiments in living’, which should be ‘outside’ the scope of the law. The individual act of having a drink is not the cause of crime, believed Mill, any more than parenthood is the cause of child abuse or holding an opinion is a breach of someone’s ‘social rights’.

Mill was keenly aware of the dangers of linking spiralling social harms with individual behaviour. ‘So monstrance a principle is far more dangerous than any single interference with liberty’, he wrote (13). ‘There is no violation of liberty which it would not justify; it acknowledges no right to any freedom whatsoever, except perhaps that of holding opinions in secret, without ever disclosing them: for the moment an opinion which I consider noxious passes anyone’s lips, it invades all the “social rights” attributed to me by the Alliance.’ Anderson’s report and a future EU strategy will be relatively light on legislation – but, as Mill argues, the principle is more important than any particular act of law.

If the Anderson report is anything to go by, the EU looks set to propose shorter bar opening hours, days when shops cannot sell alcohol, health warnings, and higher taxes to put off drinkers across Europe. Here, too, Mill would disagree, because the restrictions spring from the above ‘monstrous principle’ with the avowed intent of cutting individual consumption. He backed licensing laws but only as a means of regulating or taxing public sale of alcohol, not as a means of checking individual acts of drinking.

‘The limitation of number, for instance, of beer and spirit houses, for the express purpose of rendering them more difficult of access, and diminishing the occasions of temptation, not only exposes all to an inconvenience because there are some by whom the facility might be abused, but is suited only to a state of society in which the labouring classes are avowedly treated as children or savages, and placed under a education of restraint, to fit them for future admission to freedom…. No person who sets due value on freedom will give his adhesion to being so governed’, Mill argued (14).

Today’s public health campaigners may not specifically target the working classes (instead we’re all in their sights), but they also, like the old prohibitionists, have little faith in the capacity of people to run their own lives without being instructed by propaganda or tutored in scare stories. The European report says: ‘Educational interventions, which show little effectiveness in reducing the harm done by alcohol, are not an alternative to measures that regulate the alcohol market, which have the greatest impact in reducing harm…. Educational programmes should not be implemented in isolation as an alcohol policy measure…but rather as a measure to reinforce awareness of the problems created by alcohol and to prepare the ground for specific interventions and policy changes…. Broad educational programmes, beginning in early childhood, should be implemented to inform young people of the consequences of alcohol consumption on health, family and society and of the effective measures that can be taken to prevent or minimise harm.’ (15)

There is perhaps one key difference between yesterday’s and today’s ‘prohibition campaigners’. Once the temperance movement believed man could be saved. Today, it joins with the public health lobby to treat drinking as a form of social pathology rather than a question of moral redemption. Once, public health had the aim of protecting society against disease. Today, the ‘new public health movement’ seeks to protect society against people themselves.

Today’s public health outlook on drinking dovetails neatly with other powerful contemporary trends that emphasise human vulnerability or undermine trust between individuals. Linking drinking to free-floating risks, independent of the intentions of individuals, is a characteristic of today’s anti-humanist climate. But 200 years after his birth, we can take heart from the works and legacy of Mill. He stood against the tide in his day and won. We owe him a debt and we owe the future of freedom a duty to make our own stand against the new public health alliance of the twenty-first century.

(1) Telephone interview, May 24 2006

(2) Summary of draft commission report on health, social and economic impact of alcohol, obtained by author

(3) Draft minutes of the commission’s working group on alcohol and health, June 9 and 10 2004, Luxembourg. Meeting with representatives of member states, eea countries, accession countries

(4) Eurocare, APN, Staff

(5) First meeting of Alcohol Policy Network, Warsaw, June 15-16 2004, notes of meeting

(6) Comments from Eurocare to the paper ‘Partnership for health in Europe’

(7) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, second edition, 1997, page 949, Collins, J 1982

(8) Daily Telegraph, November 15 2002

(9) Daily Telegraph, November 14 2003. Also see article on ‘Peter Simple’, Daily Telegraph October 24 2005

(11) See European Voice, May 11 2006, Financial Times and FT Deutschland May 19 2006

(12) Anderson, phone interview May 24: ‘The temperance message does not need to be bundled up with the public health message. I think this is a problem that has surfaced but this report was written by people who are not temperance people but public health people who are independent.’

(13) On Liberty, Oxford University Press 1998, page 99

(14) Ibid, page 112

(15) Draft commission report on health, social and economic impact of alcohol obtained by author, conclusion 13, recommendations VI 1 & 3

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Topics Politics


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