Interesting morning in a series of meetings covering variously alcohol abuse, Page 3 girls (and the campaign to get The Sun to drop them and so catch up with the modern world), banks and their diversity policies and various specifications to do with a new bike.
Forgive me if for now I focus on the alcohol part, which included discussions on an interesting new idea being launched by Alcohol Concern, of which more nearer the relevant time, and an interview on the same thing with the Daily Telegraph.
So an opportunity for me to bang on again about the need for Britain to face up to the scale of the damage that alcohol abuse does to Britain, to families, companies and communities.
When a little space emerged in the morning schedule, I thought I might whack off a quick blog on the subject. But first I looked at my emails and there, as if by magic, was one from recovering alcoholic Lucy Rocca, from Sheffield, offering an unsolicited guest blog on the government’s alcohol strategy.
You may remember a while back Lucy and her fellow former drinker Anita wrote a guest blog announcing the setting up of their website, Soberistas, for people worried about their drinking. It led to a fair bit of publicity and support for them, I am pleased to be able to publish another blog from Lucy now, not least because it echoes perfectly part of the message I tried to put over in my documentary a few months ago, Britain’s Hidden Alcoholics. With thanks to Lucy, here it is.
— In the ‘Government’s Alcohol Strategy,’ published in March, David Cameron summed up his vision of binge drinking in Britain and how best to deal with it. I can’t help feeling that he is going about the issue in completely the wrong way.
The opening paragraph of Dave’s message states that binge drinking is responsible for the violence and mayhem on our streets and that, as Prime Minister, he thinks we should not stand for it any longer; as a nation, we must fight this rising tide of alcohol-fuelled anarchy and we must do it fast.
He then pinpoints the following strategies as those which he envisages as the most effective in stemming this growing trend of a regularly boozed up Britain; there must be more powers given to those in the hospitality industry, to allow them to deny alcohol to people who are already drunk; local councils must be able to prevent venues from serving booze after hours, if they wish; hospitals should be given more support to deal with the barrage of drunken revellers who roll through their doors each weekend; and the nightclubs who supply said revellers with the drink that causes these ills, must be dealt with. Plus, we must come down hard on the sale of discounted alcohol.
There are many issues of violence, degradation of public behaviour and general disorder on our streets, our parks and within drinking establishments, as a direct result of people getting drunk. It is important for society as a whole that the climate of normalisation surrounding binge drinking in the UK is overturned, and that people begin to view excessive alcohol consumption in a different light. So far, so good; I agree with Dave.
The whole debate surrounding how to deal with those who go out and get blasted each weekend before roaming our city streets, vandalising and swearing and conducting acts of crime and violence as a result, is too unwieldy to resolve in this short piece of writing.
What I want to address, however, is the problem of the binge drinkers who the Tory government seems to have completely overlooked; the high functioning alcohol addicts who feed their booze dependencies behind closed doors. And upon whom a 40 pence minimum price per unit strategy will have zero effect.
I am writing with over twenty years of binge drinking experience behind me, although I am now teetotal and don’t anticipate that I will ever touch alcohol again (happily so). But for all those years that I did drink, I would never have identified myself as anything remotely resembling the Jeremy Kyle-esque boozer, who preloads with a few alcopops at home before hitting a nightclub for a plethora of discounted shots, gets in to a fight and then slumps in to a gutter to sleep it off, before nipping in to the local Job Centre to sign on the following morning.
This stereotype is, I suspect, exactly who David Cameron is thinking of when he attempts to reassure us by promising ‘This isn’t about stopping responsible drinking, adding burdens on business or some new kind of stealth tax – it’s about fast, immediate action where universal change is needed’.
‘Responsible drinking’ is a term that needs further investigation. What is responsible drinking? Who are these ‘responsible drinkers’ and how does one become one? Was I drinking responsibly because I drank expensive wine and did not, upon getting sloshed, proceed to leave my house and wreak havoc on the streets around where I live? Are people who get drunk at an expensive country wedding ‘drinking responsibly’ but those who get drunk in a working man’s club in an inner city area, not?
Everyone I know who drinks alcohol gets drunk, to a degree, at some time or another. Their drunkenness may range from talking a little bit too loudly, or wobbling a bit as they climb in to a taxi, to falling over and needing assistance in getting home safely. The people I know who drink and get drunk are professionals; nurses, lawyers, vets, journalists. They are mothers and fathers, graduates, postgraduates. They live in the leafy suburbs of Sheffield where property bucks the national downturn in house prices; they drive nice cars and go on expensive family holidays. And they get drunk – frequently.
It states in the Alcohol Strategy that ‘Binge drinking isn’t some fringe issue, it accounts for half of all alcohol consumed in this country’. We know! And many of the people who are allegedly going to do something about it (the medical practitioners and the nightclub owners and the pub landlords and landladies and government ministers and the police) are regularly binge drinking too! The problem of alcohol abuse in this country was described to me recently by a GP (who was speaking from personal experience) as ‘a hidden epidemic.’ The ‘responsible drinkers’ are not drinking any less, or any less frequently, than the youths down town on a Saturday night – they are just drinking different stuff and they are doing it in their suburban homes, rather than on the city streets and in parks.
At my worst, I drank between 70 and 100 units a week – sounds shocking until you think that that amounts to a bottle of wine a night, plus one or two extra glasses at the weekend. In drinking such vast amounts of this poison that we consider to be so acceptable in this country, I was putting myself at a huge risk of permanently damaging my liver, not to mention the emotional damage that I suffered, and no doubt my family suffered too, as a result of me continually hitting the bottle and experiencing the associated depression, mood swings and anxiety attacks that came with it.
So how will equipping the hospitals and the nightclub owners and the publicans and the local councils help those who drink like I did – throwing a few bottles of Pinot in to my supermarket trolley on top of my organic vegetables and whole wheat bread as if they were bottles of mineral water, a staple item, so predictable that they never featured on my shopping list? Must remember the pasta, the olives, the shampoo, the teabags – obviously the wine wouldn’t be forgotten, for how can you leave behind something of such value to you, the stuff that you are addicted to?
Providing the emergency services with increased powers to cope with sloshed casualties on a Friday and Saturday night is of no consequence to those who are downing a bottle or two of wine each evening once they have put the kids to bed. Closing pubs earlier and regulating nightclubs will be of absolutely no significance to the single parent (of which there are around 460,000 who frequently binge drink in the UK) who drinks each night in an effort to numb their loneliness and stress. Yes, all of these measures may have an effect on the stereotypical drunk in city centres, out of his tree on alcopops or cheap cider, but they won’t even register in the consciousness of those who drink quietly, alone or with a partner, and who don’t stagger around outside on the streets, drunk.
Likewise, a minimum price strategy of 40 pence per unit will have no impact on the more affluent middle classes for whom money is not particularly an issue. A bottle of wine, at around 12 or 13 units, would need to retail at between £5.00 and £6.00 in order to comply with a 40 pence per unit minimum pricing strategy. As a drinker, I wouldn’t have even considered buying a bottle of wine that cost less than £6.00, as I was constantly attempting to reassure myself that my habit was more to do with being a connoisseur than an alcoholic. £5.00 was bargain basement plonk and I wouldn’t have drunk it in a million years.
David Cameron’s alcohol policy advisors need to wake up and smell the Cabernet Sauvignon; yes, by all means introduce a method of dealing with the kids in the parks and cities who are pie-eyed on Bacardi Breezers, and certainly deliver improved public health services that can provide help to those who have seriously damaged their health due to the severity of their alcoholism – but please let’s stop pretending that ‘normal’ people aren’t a part of the binge drinking equation in Britain. The middle class parents who sink a couple of bottles of wine per night after the kids have been tucked up in bed, the hard working professional who necks a few glasses of wine in the bar after work with colleagues, the single mum who is stuck inside night after night, lonely and depressed and drinking to self-medicate – how will David Cameron’s Alcohol Strategy help them?
My guess is that it won’t make the slightest bit of difference to them, or to their ‘responsible drinking.’