I am very pleased that The Times pulled out my invented word – alcocracy – as one of their headings on my piece on alcohol today. Here’s hoping that it has more success than my last deliberately invented word – garbagic – in entering the language. Garbagic was a word I came up with to describe stories which were a load of rubbish, therefore many on most of the days I worked in the Downing St press office. It flickered and flared but alas, faded away.
How different for the greatest wordsmiths of all time, William Shakespeare, who invented words virtually every time he put pen to paper. Google ‘words and phrases used in Shakespeare plays’ and you’ll see what I mean.
Alcocracy is designed to convey the sheer volume and power of alcohol sales and marketing in the UK, and alongside it that fact that it is a very hard place to say No. My Panorama film on BBC 1 on Monday night, Britain’s Hidden Alcoholics, tells my own story but more importantly that of a group of middle class alcoholics who have all now become abstinent as the only way of controlling the demon drink.
One of them, Mark, said that he felt there was a tsunami of marketing, and that Britain was sitting on a boozequake. Now that’s a good word too. It hasn’t made the programme, so I put it in here.
Mark also came up with my favourite quote of the whole film … ‘I think people’s perception of what is an alcoholic is interesting because actually, do you know what, it is not the guy with the brown paper bag and the strong cider or cheap vodka. It can be two glasses a night if that is what you need. I challenge anybody I know to stop for a month, to go the same places, do the same things, interact with the same people and just remove the alcohol from the equation and see how they feel.’
I know from personal experience how hard it is to stop given the social norms and the tsunami of marketing. But the medics in my film are in no doubt that unless Brits curb their drinking to excess, the booze quake will cost tens of thousands of lives. Liver disease is the only major cause of death rising year on year, whereas there have been huge falls in mortality from smoking diseases.
And as I said here yesterday, when David Cameron was out and about lambasting binge drinking yobs, the real problem drinkers in Britain are the professional middle classes. We have embraced Europe’s drinking habits – 1.6billion bottles of wine a year – but not the eating habits to go with them, so that we now drink wine like we used to drink beer, and we combine drinking with food with weekend binging to give us what one of the medics in the film, Dr Nick Sheron, calls ‘the worst of both worlds.’
Dr Sheron says that the risk of liver disease starts at two bottles of wine a week. At that rate, it is small. But from four bottles a week, it rises exponentially, so that if you’re drinking 8-10 bottles a week, you have a good chance of liver disease. What’s more, you are unlikely to know until you’ve got it, and the damage is done.
I am, as I have said here before, very squeamish, so I surprised myself in not passing out when shown round the Department of Anatomy at Queen Mary’s Hospital by Dr Cathetine Molyneux. She showed me a diseased liver which used to belong to a heavy drinker. Twice the size of a healthy one, covered in fatty spots. The guy died of internal bleeding because the liver was so tired from breaking down alcohol that it couldn’t do it’s day job of filtering blood.
Dr Sheron revealed that he now has as many women with cirrhosis of the liver as men, and that 95 percent of his patients do their drinking at home. Here is the issue the government’s new alcohol strategy will have to look at. As you’d expect, some of the filming is done at Burnley Football Club, where alcohol sales are an important part of the club’s finances, as they are with many businesses. Catering director Chris Gibson told me that for evening events at the club, many of his customers arrive drunk, having tanked up cheap at home, so they can spend less in the bars and pubs and clubs.
So cost and availability are an issue. But so is the freedom of the individual to make his own choices. So is the decline of the pub, a paradoxical fall that comes alongside a rise in drink problems. So is the cost to the NHS, the police, and to people’s marriages and relationships It is the job of the government to weigh it all up, and decide.
A lot of the comments yesterday seemed to think Cameron’s sudden interest in the boozequake was a ploy to divert attention from rising unemployment. Possibly. But Britain’s relationship with alcohol is a troubled one, and as with any problem, the first thing you have to do is admit it.
The Times tell me they have had a huge response to my piece. In it, I state directly that the middle class Times reader is more likely to have a drink problem than the binge drinking yon. So perhaps it has struck a nerve. And though government has to set rules and regulations, and legistlate, as we did with 24 hour licensing for reasons I never fully understood, ultimately it is for all of us to make our own decisions ever time a drink comes our way. And in the alcocracy, that happens very very often.