A mad campaign to scare us into sobriety

The Home Office-backed charity Drinkaware might just be the most patronising public health initiative ever.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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The ‘stand-alone, independent’ charity Drinkaware has been seeking to ‘positively change… public behaviour and the national drinking culture’ for over three years now. Perhaps you’ve seen the posters in pubs. There’s the one that features a pair of what can only be described as ‘beer goggles’ and the tag line ‘Afraid you’ll pull a moose – Stay focused by pacing your drinks’. Another involving, again, what can only be described as a ‘tasty-looking baguette’ urges you to ‘start your night with a bite!’

But it’s not just posters. Drinkaware recently ventured into the sozzled urban jungle, in this case a branch of Top Shop, and lectured staff on the dangers of drink, such as pulling Canadian national symbols, feeling hungry and, of course, fighting and the risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease.

As campaigning organisations go, Drinkaware is spectacularly patronising. It seems to assume the public is utterly incapable of looking after itself, that after centuries of varying degrees of intoxication, we are suddenly incapable of handling our drink.

Take its ‘advice on hangovers’ for example. The opening paragraph paints a fearful scene in its typically matey ‘beer goggles’ vernacular: ‘Your head’s banging and your mouth feels like it has been lined with cheap carpet.’ Which does raise a question: what difference does the price of the carpet make? Surely lining your mouth with any type of carpet, irrespective of the quality of the pile, would be uncomfortable? Still, you get the point: ‘hangovers hurt’, it says. Then the killer piece of advice, the top tip to end all top tips: ‘It might sound obvious to say, but the only guaranteed way to avoid a hangover is not to drink alcohol.’

Luckily for booze hounds, Drinkaware doesn’t confine itself to the bleeding obvious – it also suggests setting a limit on how much you drink before you go out and that you should drink plenty of water before, during and after your session. Which is excellent advice if, in the first case, you’re chronically anally retentive, and in the second, you like pub toilets. It even advises students of alcohol not to get into buying rounds since that will mean they will end up drinking and spending more. That the tradition of buying rounds of drinks is also about being sociable seems to be beyond the ken of Drinkaware. No, their image of the ideal drinker is one with iron discipline and a tight fist. Which is effective in the sense that that’s exactly the type of person who wouldn’t be invited out for a pint in the first place.

Not content with trying to potty-train the public on all matters alcoholic, Drinkaware is also concerned with the plight of the unemployed. Sort of. ‘Don’t take [redundancy] personally’, it says: instead try to see it as a new start, and – this is key – don’t drink. Because if you drink, it warns, people won’t be as sympathetic to your plight. The image of the helpless cast-off in need of a few platitudes is insulting enough, as is the therapeutic tone (‘don’t think of the past or the future, because you can’t do anything about either of those’). But more insulting still is the idea that what people in dire straits need is someone to tell them not to seek solace, or indeed pleasure, in a few beers. It should be clear to Drinkaware, given how au fait they are with statements of the brain-defyingly obvious, that what the unemployed need is a job, not the witless wisdom of a charity campaign.

There’s plenty more condescension where all the above came from. For example, men aged between 20 and 40 need to be aware that, while they think they are just having a few pints with friends or work mates, they are in fact DRINKING FAR TOO MUCH. Even if they are having a drink in front of the telly, they are in fact DRINKING FAR TOO MUCH. I even learnt that three pints of proper Stella (the 5.2 per cent ABV stuff) is the calorific equivalent of eating 50 fruit pastilles. Whether that’s meant to scare us or convince us to swap the Belgian honey for an industrial-sized bag of fruit-flavoured gelatine, I’m not sure.

All of this, while patronising, would be by-the-by if it weren’t for the fact that Drinkaware is not just an independent charity with little clout, but is effectively an industry-funded, state-driven attempt to change the behaviour of the public. As its ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ points out, the Drinkaware Trust will ‘provide the mechanism in England for government-industry partnership on public education campaigns, as envisaged in the “Choosing Health” White Paper’. In other words, Drinkaware wasn’t spontaneously born of the good conscience of the drinks industry, it was forced into existence by a government increasingly intent on regulating every aspect of people’s behaviour, from what we inhale to what we eat and drink.

Given the state-endorsed nature of Drinkaware, its approach reveals something about the government’s attitude to the public’s alcohol consumption. Framed almost entirely in the context of unfortunate consequences such as disease, continued unemployment and embarrassing sexual encounters, it seeks to scare the public into sobriety. It’s an approach born of weakness. Unable to say why we ought not to drink in explicitly moral terms – that inebriation is not part of their vision of the good life – they prefer the surreptitious route: a formally ‘independent, stand-alone’ charity telling us why we’ll harm ourselves if we drink.

Yes, drinking isn’t always the best thing in the world. ‘Puking in a taxi’, as Emma from Harrogate informs us via Drinkaware, is rarely edifying. But, and this may come as a surprise to some, this is not something we, as adults, are unaware of. And that’s the point. We are not in need of state-approved nudges in the direction of teetotalism. On the whole we are perfectly capable of making decisions as to what and how much we drink, as the booze-riven history of the human race has amply demonstrated.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black critiqued the killjoys’ war on ‘boozy Britain’. Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth and wondered if the government knows its limits. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick urged doctors to refuse to become the high priests of the new anti-boozing temperance movement. Josie Appleton argued against all booze bans. Brendan O’Neill thought the debate about binge drinking was a licence to bash the masses. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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