Why the booze panic is still staggering on
Officialdom is determined to ‘denormalise’ what the majority of us deem to be perfectly normal: enjoying a few drinks at the end of the day.
A wine bottle emptied. A glass spilled. And a family photo ruined. As cover images go, the one for Over the Limit: The Truth About Families and Alcohol, a report published yesterday by UK charity 4Children, was about as subtle as being beaten round the head with a bottle of cabernet sauvignon. Booze is bad, it loud-hailed; it doesn’t just ruin your life, it ruins your kids’ lives, too.
Some of the headlines were suitably portentous. ‘Warning over middle-class parents’ alcohol habits’, stated the BBC. The Daily Mail preferred incredulous capital letters: ‘Drinking helps IMPROVE our parenting, insist a fifth of mothers and fathers.’ As a piece of advocacy research – that is, research geared around promoting a certain point of view – it’s certainly a case of job well done for 4Children. It has not only helped to reinforce the impression that booze is a blight upon British society; it has also sold us the fiction-as-fact that parents’ alcohol consumption adversely affects their children.
Not that painting a miserable portrait of our drinking habits is particularly hard today. There seems to be a consensus across political parties and the media that alcohol consumption is indeed a big, big problem. The only discussion centres upon the best way to address it. Prime minister David Cameron, for instance, can announce, as he did earlier this year, that the ‘scandal’ of drunkenness and alcohol abuse needs to be tackled, and no one bats an eyelid. Booze Britain, complete with puking teens and pissed parents, is a given, a fact that simply doesn’t need to be challenged.
Yet it really should be challenged. At the same time as 4Children was busy readying its assault on parents who – shock, horror – like to drink, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) released rather sobering figures. Using tax-receipt data from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and survey material from the Office for National Statistics, the BBPA revealed that reality was rather drier than the drink-soaked fantasists would have us believe. In fact, alcohol consumption in Britain has actually fallen to its lowest level for 13 years. Furthermore, according to The Economist, supping rates have veritably plummeted among the young over the past 10 years. That is, the very people deemed to be vomiting and fighting at the coalface of binge-drink Britannia don’t actually seem to be drinking that much. ‘In 2003’, reports The Economist, ’70 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds told interviewers they had had a drink in the previous week; by 2010, just 48 per cent had. The proportion of 11- to 15-year-olds who had drunk in the previous week halved over the same period. Heavy drinking sessions are down, too.’
And this is why the existence of 4Children’s scaremongering report is revealing. In its contorted argument, its counterfactual assertion that there is a big, big problem, it shows how the largely state-backed anti-booze industry, a morass of report-churning quangos and ever-so-concerned charities, is dead set on creating a problem where there really isn’t one. Or perhaps more accurately, it wants to problematise an aspect of our everyday behaviour. It wants to wrest an accepted part of social life from its mundane context, and present it back to us as something weird, harmful, perhaps even sinister.
The opening paragraph of chapter one sets the scene: ‘[I]t is clear that drinking is a constant feature of the British way of life. Even those who do not drink themselves live in a country where pubs, clubs, off-licences and supermarkets sell alcohol around the clock and where alcohol is marketed and advertised everywhere without stigma, where drinking alcohol is an accepted part of the British character, as normal as drinking tea.’
This, the report is saying, is what we, the unthinking citizenry, take for normality: a world in which you can buy a four-pack of Heineken ‘without stigma’; a world in which drinking a glass or two of wine in the evening ‘is as normal as drinking tea’. And it is precisely this world, with its informal social norms, cultivated and accepted over decades, that the anti-booze crew thinks could do with a bit of stigmatising, a bit of ‘denormalising’.
Which is what press-released reports such as 4Children’s seek to do. They attempt to stigmatise the mundane, denomalise the normal. That we don’t recognise our social norms as problematic is not evidence that there isn’t a problem, the report argues. No, it is proof merely of our ignorance. Hence the key trope of this type of advocacy research, as it is here, is almost always ‘to raise awareness’. In other words, our betters at the Department of Health or Alcohol Concern or, in this case, 4Children are there to help us see the ‘hidden’ harms of our hitherto normal behaviour, to hear the ‘silent epidemic’ destroying lives unbeknownst to those living them.
And what problems might alcohol consumption among parents be causing? Apparently, we may not be giving our kids enough attention, we may be a bit unsteady on our feet, and, shockingly, older kids may be embarrassed by us when we’re drinking. Despite the fact that a glass of wine in the evening will usually be enjoyed when the kids are in bed, and, more pointedly, that older kids find parents embarrassing when they’re sober, too, 4Children’s intent is clear. It wants to make us suspect our normal behaviour, to view it as in some way harmful. Using the fearmongers’ metaphor of choice – the submerged iceberg of unseen harm – particularly extreme anecdotes involving alcohol and domestic abuse are then served up as spurious proof of a general malaise: ‘These extreme cases are only the tip of an enormous iceberg… For all those families whose problems fly under the radar, the reality can be very different – and the negative impacts of drinking can be invisible even to the drinkers themselves.’
In short, the problem, like some half-remembered AA mantra, is that we don’t recognise we have a problem – ‘it is invisible even to the drinkers themselves’. It is our conception of what is normal that is at issue. Or as 4Children chief executive Anne Longfield put it: ‘[T]he potential for alcohol to have an impact is sometimes hidden because drinking is so socially acceptable.’
This drive to denormalise alcohol consumption, to render boozing as shameful as smoking has become, has all but seized officialdom’s imagination recently. For instance, the UK Faculty of Public Health recently suggested that the government should label alcohol products with cigarette packet-style graphic warnings of supposedly alcohol-related risks, such as, er, cancer and violence. Elsewhere, there seems to have been an attempt to make the buying of alcohol as embarrassing as it is to purchase ‘top shelf’ magazines. NHS Cumbria, for instance, put forward proposals to force retailers to create separate tills for the sale of alcohol. Likewise, Alcohol Concern, a Department of Health-funded agency, was unhappy with the presence of alcohol in supermarkets, sometimes right next to the microwave lasagnes. ‘Such practices promote alcohol as a normal commodity, like any other type of food or drink’, an official said. The recent words of the British Medical Association’s head of science and ethics, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, strike an ominous note: ‘We have to start denormalising alcohol – it is not like other types of food and drink.’
The effect of this state-managed attempt to change our social norms, to estrange us from our everyday behaviour, is likely to be disorientation. An everyday part of British social life is in the process of being twisted out of place. If what we thought was normal is being forcibly rendered abnormal, then how are we to judge for ourselves what is normal? It is out of our hands. And this is where the state, or one of its charitable adjuncts, will step in, with official guidelines and offers of help.
Ironically, given the way in which 4Children is using kids to bully parents into changing their ways, it is likely to be future generations who will be most affected by our increasingly uncertain relationship with alcohol. The normal ways in which young people’s alcohol habits are cultivated, perhaps through a glass of wine with one’s parents, or a pint down the pub with mum or dad, are being rendered abnormal, harmful even. Without older generations to mediate younger generations’ relationship with booze, youthful drinking habits are likely to become more infantile. Which is perhaps apt given the fact that adults are no longer considered capable enough to decide when, where and how much they drink.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.