Opinion: Is Alcohol Becoming Society's Whipping Boy?

Luke Haines

Luke Haines

26 November 2015

It's often said that those who do not learn from history's mistakes are doomed to repeat them.

So it was with the pilgrim fathers of America, puritans who decided to leave England after suffering persecution for their uptight religious beliefs. When they departed for the New World, the rest of Britain - a proud drinking nation celebrated for its ability to lift a glass for hundreds of years - shrugged and decided 'good riddance to the temperate killjoys. Who needs them anyway?!'

Fast forward a few hundred years and the fledgling nation the Puritans created, America, had become an independent entity and an economic and cultural powerhouse. Unfortunately, America's puritan roots have a way of showing through, and these days Britain and its people aspire to be more like America.

This now seems to be extending to attitudes towards alcohol, as well as everything else.

America has never seemed to really understand the ideology of cold North European countries, like Britain and Ireland, where it's socially fine - if not meteorologically necessary - to get pleasantly rat arsed of an evening. Anyone in America who is frequently drunk has a problem, and this demonisation of alcohol is beginning to take hold in the UK via the sort of cultural osmosis that has already played merry hell with language and law. Have you been injured at work? Sue someone like they would in the States! Are you drunk on a weeknight? You clearly need an intervention...

Never has the shallow transparency of neo-prohibitionism been more obvious than in a recent report by the Institute of Alcohol Studies (a group which turns out to be way less fun than it sounds), which laments that the 'public health responsibility deal' brought in by the coalition government has been a failure, seeing drinks companies pay lip-service and nothing more to the health consequences of alcohol, and ignoring their duties in the name of profit.

Whilst it would be remiss to say that alcohol companies should entirely abandon any and all responsibility to consumers - nobody wants antifreeze in their wine and marketing exclusively at homeless alcoholics seems shabby -  it feels a lot like the drinks industry has taken a hard look at the nannying tone of the healthy living brigade and decided that we should all shrug, ignore it, and have a drink.

An equally honest way to sum up the report is to say that the alcohol industry has failed to discourage people from buying their products. Y'know, just like every other successful industry. Whilst it would be silly to suggest that large corporations are deserving of sympathy from their customers, it's still worth pointing out that drinks companies are staffed by human beings with bills to pay and kids to feed who would not, therefore, go out of their way to reduce sales, lower profits and see themselves turfed out onto the streets.

The idea that people who sell booze are failing in their job to convince people to drink less is oddly specific - nobody, for example, is giving cigarette companies static about their failure to reduce lung cancer rates. It would be laughable to suggest that they do so - the job of a tobacco company is to sell tobacco. Everyone knows smoking is bad for you, but the current legislation rightly treats people like adults who can make a decision for themselves. In the same (clogged) vein, nobody complains that McDonald's isn't reducing the number of obese people, because it's McDonald's. Healthy food is not what they're designed for, any more than alcohol companies are for the promotion of temperance.

The implication that the drinks industry should be trying not to give their customers what they want shows that there is a dangerous undercurrent of moral proselytizing. As mentioned above, our shadowy cultural overlords have shamed all of the smokers who were susceptible to it, launched scaremongering attacks on fat people, still persist in a war on drugs, and now, it would seem, they're coming for your liquor.

This report, or the legislation that it decries as not having been enacted strictly enough, feels like the first step on a slippery slope towards a 'Demolition Man' future in which having a few drinks and then going for a kebab will be as scandalous and furtive an activity as shooting up a needle full of smack.

Don't let the spirit of puritanism win.

Sell more booze!

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