If I took £18 from your pocket but told you that you were now actually better off as a result of my relieving you of your money, because I was giving £34 to the local hospital, you would, I think, decide I was either an idiot or a not very good conman.
This, however, is the sleight of hand being attempted by the militant anti-drink campaigners at the deliberately blandly named Institute of Alcohol Studies in its nonsensical report, published today, insisting that raising alcohol taxes would not “disproportionally” affect the poor, because of the “potential additional funds generated for the NHS”.
The IAS wants higher taxes on alcohol because it believes (or claims to believe) this will help solve “problem” drinking, though in fact there is no evidence this is true. It admits that higher taxes on alcohol “may” hit the poor proportionally harder than the rich (for “may” read “will”’ of course). It has obviously struggled to justify this disproportionate impact, and has decided to pretend that while poorer households would lose £18 a year through higher alcohol taxes, they would gain because there would be £34 per poorer household for the NHS, the extra money made available from higher taxes and, presumably, what it hopes will be less demand on the NHS because of lower alcohol consumption.
It does not explain how it knows this extra money will be there to boost the health service – instead of, as is more likely under the current government, being used to cut corporation tax and/or income tax for higher earners. If it existed at all.
The facts are that the UK already pays some of the highest alcohol taxes in Europe, that alcohol consumption in this country has been falling for many years, that most countries in Europe drink more alcohol than we do, and that alcohol remains a net contributor to national happiness, something that the wowsers of the IAS cannot accept.
The Guardian, of course, printed the IAS press release without challenging either the assumptions or the conclusions, and without pointing out that the IAS is fundamentally a temperance organisation, directly descended from 19th century temperance campaigning groups.
Nor did it quote anybody putting forward a dissenting point of view or commenting on the extremely dodgy assumptions behind the IAS’s calculations, such as the utterly evidence-free idea that if you lower total alcohol consumption, “problematic” alcohol consumption will fall as well.
It would be good to hold a proper debate on alcohol consumption in this country, and put to death the many myths that hamper reporting on the subject. Unfortunately the IAS certainly isn’t interested, and neither, it appears, is the Guardian.
It is as well the Portman Group wasn’t around when Admiral Sir Edward Belcher was fitting out his expedition to the Arctic in 1852 to try to find out what had happened to Sir John Franklin and his gallant men, lost on their voyage in search of the North West Passage seven years earlier. The Portman Group would have tried to tell Sir Edward that the Arctic Ale he was taking with him to sustain his men, brewed by Allsopp’s brewery in Burton upon Trent to around 11.25 per cent abv and shipped in “reputed quarts”, a whistle under 75cl, smashed its guidelines, being 8.4 units of alcohol in a single container, or more than twice as much as was permissible. Sir Edward would doubtless have replied in sailorly fashion, leaving everybody’s ears severely scorched.
The Portman Group’s “Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks”, which has just been updated, is fundamentally an exercise in arse-protecting by the drinks industry, an attempt through “self-regulation” to persuade the government not to listen to the nanny-state neo-prohibitionists who would like, in lieu of total prohibition, as many restrictions on the sale of alcohol as possible, accompanied by as much tax as the market will bear. The group, the self-styled “drinks industry watchdog”, is there to assure politicians that the makers of alcohol are doing sufficient to prevent harm caused by alcohol for there to be no need for any more government legislation.
Unfortunately you can never satisfy the wowsers enough without banning alcohol altogether, and the Portman Group appears to be incapable of standing up to people like the neo-prohibitionist Institute of Alcohol Studies and pointing out that whatever harm alcohol does, it brings much pleasure to a far greater number of people than it hurts. The result is the pursuit by the group of policies that will actively reduce the legitimate pleasure possible, in particular, from the consumption of strong beers such as barley wines and imperial stouts, with their massive depths of flavours, apparently under the misapprehension that the only people who want to drink a beer over seven per cent ABV are tramps sitting on park benches, and that tramps need to be prevented from getting drunk
SIBA, the small brewers’ group, has been getting seriously upset at changes in the new guidelines over the strength of beers, with its chief executive, Mike Benner, declaring that they “threaten new, innovative speciality beer styles like Imperial stouts, porters, IPAs and British interpretations of traditional strong Belgian styles,” and “SIBA is disappointed the Portman Group is pressing ahead to introduce new guidance, which says that ‘single serve’, non-resealable containers shouldn’t contain more than four units of alcohol.”
But this isn’t new at all: the attack on strong beers has actually been Portman Group policy for years – the guidelines already specifically stated that “putting in excess of four units in a non-resealable single-serve container indirectly encouraged immoderate consumption of alcohol, contrary to rule 3.2(f).” Carlsberg was found in breach of the guidelines in 2015 over its 500ml cans of nine per cent abv Special Brew, which contained 4.5 units of alcohol, which is why it is now only available in the UK in 440ml cans at 7pc abv, which is three units.
That ober dicta was based on the Chief Medical Officers’ drinking guidelines, which, at the time, suggested no more than four units of alcohol for men per day. When the CMOs came out with new guidelines in 2016 which dropped the daily limit in favour of a weekly one, the rug was tugged sharply from under the Portman Group’s justification for ruling against Special Brew, since producers could argue that as long as a drinker wasn’t having a can every day, there was no problem. They haven’t said so, but I’d bet what worried the Portman Group after the CMOs changed their line was having to argue in court in support of a four-unit limit per can or bottle if they were challenged.
In its summary of the responses to the consultation document it put out before the new guidelines were formulated – I recommend reading it – the Portman Group declared that it has decided that in future “containing more than four units becomes a contributory rather than an absolute factor: if the producer is able to demonstrate that mitigating factors should be taken into account – for instance, premium quality of the product, whether the product is typically decanted/shared, price at which it is typically sold, accompanying promotional material, et cetera.” In other words, convince us you’re an aspirational, upmarket product, preferably designed to be shared, and not tramp juice meant for solitary sipping while surrounded by pigeons, and we’ll think about letting you off. So in fact the new guidelines represent a slight relaxation of the previous restrictions, and if Carlsberg were to print “please share responsibly” on cans of Special Brew it might, perhaps, get away with putting the size of the cans back to 500ml and the strength up to nine per cent again. (Errr – though probably not …)
However, the Portman Group is still declaring that “single-serve, non-resealable containers that contain upwards of six units will be difficult to justify, even with mitigating factors,” with this upper limit “in line with UK binge drinking measure which is currently set at six units of alcohol in a single session for men and women.” It says its research shows that while nearly two thirds of people think a 75cl bottle of wine is for sharing, fewer than half think the same about a 75cl bottle of beer, making that bottle “single-serve”, according to its rules, and thus a container that should not have more than six units of alcohol inside. If a 75cl bottle of beer is “likely” to be regarded as designed to be drunk by one person, this would rule out any beer over 8 per cent abv in a 75cl bottle.
Among the beers that break the new Portman Group guidelines, and therefore face a potential ban, by being stronger than eight per cent and sold in 75cl bottles, are beautiful brews from the US, such as Brooklyn Brewery Black Ops, or Local 2, Rogue’s XS Old Crustacean barley wine and Lost Abbey’s 10 Commandments; a rake of great beers from Italian craft brewers, who go for 75cl bottles in a big way – pun semi-intended – including the wonderful Xyauyù Barrel from the Italian brewer Baladin; and a fair number of beers from the Netherlands and Belgium, including Chimay Grand Reserve, De Molen Hel & Verdoemenis (and several other De Molen beers), Duvel Barrel Aged (I had some of the third iteration of that earlier this week: excellent beer, like oak floorboards smeared with blood oranges), and Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux.
There are not so many examples of big beers in big bottles from the UK (indeed, not the least problematical aspect of this policy is that since it vastly disproportionally affects overseas producers, and the Portman Group is funded by UK producers, there is a very good argument for saying that it represents an attempt at an illegal restraint of trade – not that that may matter so much in a post-Brexit world). Sadly, unlike Belgium or the Netherlands, Britain has long lost that tradition of hefty strong stouts and barley wines in anything but nips: 33cl at best. Even a 12 per cent beer in a 33cl bottle just misses a rap on the knuckles from the Portman Group, at 3.96 units. But half a degree over that and you’ll be on the carpet and asked to explain yourself: what mitigating factors are there that we should wave you through and let your beer be sold to responsible adults perfectly able to make their own purchasing decisions without nanny hovering?
And if you’re thinking of reproducing great beers from the past such as Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, in the original style of bottle, to give a good change of some bottle-age (because smaller bottles age worse than larger onea, for a variety of reasons), fuggedaboutit: you’ll be red-carded as soon as some do-gooder spots your beer on the shelf and grasses you up to the lasses and lads at 20 Conduit Street. The result is, indeed, as Mike Benner says, that innovation by British brewers is being cramped: we had a long history in this country of super-strong beers, from the thumping pale ales that the squirearchy used to brew on their estates in the 18th century as a substitute for bandy during our many years of war with France to the huge Burton Ales we exported to Russia and (somewhat surprisingly) Australia, and, of course, all those thumping stouts that eventually earned the name “imperial”. But if the Portman Group prevails, anyone trying to reproduce those beers from the past in any bottle size worth laying down will have to prepare a lengthy brief justifying themselves for daring to exceed four units a bottle. It seems clear the “watchdog” is hoping its barking will scare away strong beers entirely.
I cannot avoid seeing a strong streak of snobbism in this. The Portman Group gives the impression that it still sees beer as an inferior drink, and beer drinkers as people who need protecting from themselves. My local off-licence will sell you two 75cl bottles of 12 per cent abv Spanish red wine for the equivalent of £5 a bottle. If someone were selling large bottles of 11.5 per cent Arctic Ale at that price, there would be howls, from the Portland Group to the Daily Mail. But it’s OK: wine drinkers are nice people like us, and don’t need to be policed.
Where does the UK stand in the league table for consumption of alcohol per head? You’re probably saying to yourself something like, “oooh, we must be pretty high up – not as much as the Czechs, surely, they’re notorious for knocking back the pilsner, and I bet the Poles still drink lots of vodka, and doesn’t little Luxembourg have some weirdly high consumption per head figure because all its neighbours pop across the border to buy cheap booze? So, I dunno, fourth?”
If you’ve caught any of the neoprohibitionist nonsense from organisations such as the Institute for Alcohol Studies – descended directly from the International Order of Good Templars, a campaigning temperance group founded in the 1850s – and the Alcohol Health Alliance, both currently crowing because they have managed to persuade the Scots to adopt minimum unit pricing of alcohol, and both pushing hard to have the same policy adopted in England and Wales, then you’ve probably subconsciously absorbed the idea that here in this green and sceptical isle we drink lots and lots, enough to have a problem about it, and certainly more than most others.
In fact, on average, we don’t. And in fact, on average, the UK comes 25th out of a list of 27 European countries for alcohol consumption per head (*). Third from bottom. Not “qualifying for the Champions League” levels at all – “relegation into the Championship” levels. Of the other nine leading economies in the world, only three – China, Japan and India – drink less alcohol per head than the UK does. The Germans drink more than 40 per cent more alcohol per head than we do. The French drink 24 per cent more. Even the United States drinks slightly more, at 7.1 litres of pure alcohol equivalent per head, against the UK’s 7 litres (all 2015 figures).
Other statistics also show that the UK today is a relatively sober nation. Overall alcohol consumption is 9 per cent down on 2001. Convictions for drunkenness are barely a third of the level they were even in the Second World War, when beer was weak, wine and spirits unavailable and your local pub, if it hadn’t been bombed to bits, was shut because of rationing; and only a tenth of what they were in 1973, when we all had long hair and loon pants and a pint cost 15p (though current statistics have probably been affected by the rise in fixed penalty notices). The number of positive breath tests has dropped two thirds since 1980, and more than halved since 2000. The percentage of 11 to 15-year-olds who have ever had an alcoholic drink is down by more than a third since 2001, and the percentage of 11 to 15-year-olds who had an alcoholic drink “in the last week” had plunged by more than two thirds.
None of this matters to the wowsers of the Institute for Alcohol Studies and the Alcohol Health Alliance, however. They point to the fact that some people abuse alcohol, and they have convinced themselves that the answer to that is the nonsensical “whole-population model”, which claims that if you lower total alcohol consumption, then “problematic” alcohol consumption will fall as well. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence to show this is true.
What is more, the figures from the Sheffield Alcohol Pricing Model, which was put together by academics at the University of Sheffield, and has been used to justify the introduction of minimum unit pricing, look instinctively ridiculous and untenable: the model claims that a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol (a unit being 10ml/8gm of pure C2H5OH) would result in a “harmful” drinker, defined as someone who drinks 50 units a week (equivalent to just under three pints of medium-strength beer a day) cutting back consumption by half a pint a day, or increasing their spending by £2.88 a week. That’s less than the price of two corner-shop sandwiches: some deterrent.
The Institute for Alcohol Studies and the Alcohol Health Alliance, of course, say it’s not just about the heavy drinkers, that minimum unit pricing will also make the moderate drinker cut back, by two thirds of a unit for men and half a unit for women, per week. That’s cutting back by a fifth of a standard glass of red wine for women, and just over a quarter of a glass of wine for men. Per week. This, they claim, will “slash” the occurrence of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.
“This is really all about symbolism and control. Once government becomes the ‘price-giver’ for the licensed trade, the image of alcohol as ‘no ordinary product’, and as something dangerous that we all need protecting from, becomes official policy. The Medical Temperance view of alcohol is in the ascendance. Their view chimes with government – not least because it gives [governments] a health-concern smokescreen behind which they can introduce what is nothing more than a sin tax.”
Minimum unit pricing is apparently now under consideration for England. If you want to stop this nannying and pointless nonsense, support Drinkers’ Voice, follow it on Twitter, and help campaign to be able to enjoy the pleasures of alcohol, moderately and sensibly.
In the 40-plus years I have worked as a journalist, I never wrote anything I knew to be an actual lie. I’ll admit, though, that, very rarely, I span a story to leave the reader with an impression that, while not actively untrue, did not present a totally balanced narrative: generally because the balanced narrative was so dull no one would have read it.
But I certainly worked with news editors from the “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good front-page splash” school of journalism: men (no women) who sent their reporters out with a clear brief on the story they were expected to bring back, and who would erupt with sweary rage if the reporter returned to say, actually, very sorry, the facts didn’t support the news editor’s wished-for narrative at all.
Thus I recognised the report by Zoë Beaty, “The real story behind the ‘drunk women’ headlines“, in which she details how, when she worked as a stringer in the North of England, news editors from London papers would ring her up and order a report on women drinking on New Year’s Eve:
“We were asked to ‘find the woman, crawling on the pavement with vomit-flecked hair’ (a line which has always stayed with me). They wanted fights. They wanted bodily fluids. They wanted short skirts and high heels – anything that fitted the ‘scantily clad’ caption they’d already written.”
Of course, Beaty and her photographer colleague would tour the night-time city centres, and discover that the facts did not at all fit the narrative the news editors demanded.
“Let me tell you, those stories are not easy to find. The spread of stories each year, from the same towns, the same areas, the same working briefs sent down from the same papers, make ‘booze Britain’ look alive and kicking. But, while there’s no denying that there is a boozy culture in Britain (upheld and esteemed when it’s white middle-class blokes propping up the bar) – and alcoholism is no joke – actually, the nights I was sent out on these jobs were intensely dull. It took forever. We walked the streets for hours, around and around. We saw one fight, eventually, at around 4am and it was over in a matter of seconds – hardly the fractured, violent streets full of staggering youths you’re expected to buy into.”
Still the stories get repeated: my personal theory is that middle-aged male news editors get a secret sexual kick seeing stories about, and pictures of, young women in revealing clothing out of control and vulnerable through drink, hence the popularity of pictures like this one below, taken in Bristol in 2010, which has subsequerntly appeared in publications as far away as Poland to illustrate stories on binge drinking:
If Dame Sally Davies had really wanted to be honest, she would have said: “Here’s my advice on how to live a possibly longer but almost certainly less pleasure-filled life …”
Instead the chief medical officer for England completely failed to address why people drink – because we enjoy it – and concentrated solely on why we shouldn’t, insisting that the new recommendations on alcohol limits were “hard science” based on the health risks of even moderate drinking. With the old guidelines for men, compared to the new lower ones, “an extra 20 men per 1,000 will get bowel cancer. That’s not scaremongering, that’s hard science.” But why did she say “20 per 1,000” instead of the equally accurate “two in a hundred”? Because 20 sounds worse than two, of course. Scaremongering …
I realised recently that it will be 50 years this summer since I first drank beer, in the garden of the Rose in Bloom in Seasalter, Whitstable. My father (illegally) bought a pint of bitter for me, thinking correctly, that though I was only just 14, I would enjoy it, and thank you, Dad, I did, greatly: that cellar-cool, floral, hoppy initial pint was the start of a lasting love. If Dame Sally Davies had popped up over the fence as I was drinking and assured me that I was increasing my chances of cancer of many kinds, I hope that my 14-year-old self would have replied: “If all the pints for the next 50 years are as good as this one, I genuinely don’t care.”
The point about risk is that, as we all see every day, it’s calculable, all right, but totally random. My mother hardly drank at all: a Snowball, advocaat and lemonade, at Christmas, with a cherry on a cocktail stick balanced across the glass, was her limit. She certainly never smoked. She died, aged 60, having survived breast cancer when she was 45 but eventually being taken out by cancer of the oesophagus. My brother – a cancer survivor himself, having come through Hodgkin’s Lymphoma nearly 40 years ago – still rides motor bikes at the age of 59, big ones, Harley Davidsons and the like, and in the past few years he has taken motorbike tours through South Africa and the eastern United States. For a rider, the chances of dying in a motorcycle crash during your lifetime are about the same as the chances of getting bowel cancer through drinking alcohol. Do we see Dame Sally Davies on daytime TV urging us to cut down on the number of motorcycle journeys we take each week, to reduce the risk?
We do not, of course, because it would be preposterous. Risk is part of motorcycle riding, as it is of many activities, from mountaineering to hang-gliding. As it happens I had a friend who died in a hang-gliding accident in his early 50s. The risk of dying in a hang-gliding accident is one in every 116,000 flights, apparently. Let’s make the mathematics easier and say you go hang-gliding every weekend, and get in two flights each time for 100 flights a year. In a lifetime’s hang-gliding that gives you just over a three per cent chance of dying in a crash. Set the undoubted joy of soaring silently over fields and woods, one with the winds and sky, against a risk of death if you did it every weekend for 40 years of 33 to one against, and I’m sure most of us would vote with my friend Bryan.
And now we know, because Dame Sally won’t let us forget, that risk is a part of even moderate drinking, too. But as another friend of mine says, stay in bed to avoid all risk, the ceiling will probably fall on your head. Indeed, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, declared that the risk level Dame Sally wants us to lower ourselves to while drinking alcohol is lower than the risk from eating a bacon sandwich, or spending an hour watching a film.
The lifetime chances of a woman who doesn’t drink getting breast cancer, like my mother, are 11 in a hundred. If a woman drinks, that risk goes up to 13 in a hundred. It’s an entirely valid decision to weigh decades of the pleasures that drinking wine and beer bring against a one-in-50 greater chance of breast cancer, and say: “I believe the risk is worth it,” just the way a hang-glider or a motorcyclist weighs up similar risks.
The big problem in the health-and-drink debate is that the pleasures of drinking are seldom discussed, and never calculated. Winston Churchill, speaking around 1953, after 60 years of regular solid drinking, including pints of champagne, and having Carlsberg invent Special Brew for him, declared: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” I have had huge enjoyment from drinking beer since that first pint of Fremlin’s bitter in the garden of the Rose in Bloom – in a coincidence Carl Jung would have appreciated, the pub’s address is Joy Lane – and if Dame Sally popped up at the end of my bed tomorrow with a scythe and hourglass to declare my time was over, adding that if only I had been a teetotaller I could have had an extra ten years, I’d spit in her eye and say it was more than worth it.
It was good to see the Government getting its retaliation in first, and dumping all over the Chief Medical Officer’s proposal for a minimum 50p-a-unit price for alcoholic drinks. Even before the annual report from Sir Liam Donaldson, on the nation’s health had been officially published, The Times was reporting that “a source close to the Prime Minister” (doubtless speaking in a soft Fifeshire accent) had declared: “The majority of sensible drinkers should not have to pay the price for the irresponsible and excessive drinking by a small minority.”
Well, yes, but it’s more than that. Much of Sir Liam’s argument seems to be heavy on assertion and light on evidence. He claims that Britain has “a spiralling drink problem”. He invents an entirely bogus concept, “passive drinking”, which is supposed to reflect the effects on people of drinking by others, and which is clearly meant to have the associations that “passive smoking” has. But “passive drinking” doesn’t exist: it’s not the drinking of others that people are victims of, it’s others’ aggression, violence and anti-social behaviour. And aggression, violence and anti-social behaviour aren’t caused by drink, they’re caused by poverty, lack of opportunity and crippled expectations. Raising the price of drink won’t solve those problems.
Sir Liam’s report, available here, declares that” Every week, two thirds of adults in England drink alcohol”, so that’s about 45 million people, but then says that “alcohol is immensely harmful. In 2006, 16,236 people died from alcohol-related causes.” In other words, every year alcohol kills 0.035 per cent of the people that use it. In addition, there are half a million deaths a year in the UK – so alcohol-related deaths make up just 3 per cent or so of the total. “Immensely harmful”? I’d suggest not.
The report goes on to assert that “Alcohol has a major impact on individual drinkers’ health.” No – it adversely affects the health of only a tiny minority. “It causes cancers of the liver, bowel, breast, throat, mouth, larynx and oesophagus; it causes osteoporosis; and it reduces fertility.” Yes, but in each case it increases the risk by only a tiny amount. For example, of women who don’t drink, 9.6 per cent get breast cancer; of women who do drink, 10.7 per cent do. In other words, one woman in a hundred gets breast cancer because she drinks. The same is true of other cancers: if you drink, it increases your chances of cancer by a tiny percentage. That does not, I suggest, justify the scare headlines in, for example, today’s Guardian that “no level of alcohol is safe”.
The Publican newspaper, written for pub managers and pub tenants in the UK, is having a small panic right now because the voting in the current poll on its website is going seriously in the wrong direction – and Publican staffers are now emailing around trying to drum up votes for the “right” answer.
The Publican is asking visitors to its website to vote on the proposition: “Should the government introduce a minimum price per alcohol unit?” Obviously, since pub people understandably hate the deep discounting and (alleged) below-cost selling of alcohol found in supermarkets, it expects an overwhelming “yes” from its readers. Unfortunately for the Publican, right now the vote is running 60:40 in favour of “no” – not the pro-pub message the newspaper wishes to present.
The result, apparently, is that “friendly” contacts are receiving emails from Publican staffers like the one below, from someone who, to protect them, will remain nameless:
Help me please!
We run a poll on our website but I think its been infiltrated by an anti-pub group who have corrupted the result. Can you help me by simply visiting the website http://www.thepublican.com/ and clicking ‘yes’ on the poll on the bottom left hand side of the screen. The idea is that a minimum price on alcohol will help stop chavs necking cheap tins of stella and causing bother on our streets. Please help me in this!
If you can get anyone else to vote yes too I’d be ever grateful – I might even buy you a four pack from Tesco.
If you’re 20 and planning a big party for your 21st, or you’re 20, soon to be married, and arranging a jolly wedding reception, and in addition you live in London, you should buy all the drink you’ll be needing for your guests now, because Boris Johnson, the new Mayor of London, and a rising number of local councils in the capital want to ensure that you will be refused service in off-licences and supermarkets.
The idea of getting off-licences and supermarkets to refuse to sell alcohol to people aged 18 to 21 comes from Croydon Council, where a local councillor called Steve O’Connell apparently thinks stopping young adult tax-payers and voters from exercising their legal right to buy beer or wine in Tesco or Threshers “could help to significantly reduce disorder”.
Naturally, O’Connell offers no evidence on how much disorder is caused by people aged 18, 19 or 20 bladdered on booze legally bought, with their own money, from off-licences or supermarkets. I’m willing to say he doesn’t have a clue: he’s just a petty politician after some publicity. All he can say in favour of the plan is that “it would affect [off-licences’] profit margins” – no it wouldn’t, you economic illiterate, it would affect their takings, but not necessarily profits or margins – “but it would stop some violent incidents taking place.” Really? How many? How do you know it “would” stop even one incident? What actual statistics do you have to back this up?
It doesn’t bother this idiot that seriously inconveniencing the non-disorder-causing 99.99 per cent of the population aged 18 to 20 who might want to buy a bottle to take to a party while the 0.01 per cent who cause drunken aggravation continue to nick their drinks supplies from their parents is a steamhammer that won’t come anywhere near cracking the nut of alcohol-fuelled drunken disorder.
Sadly, neither does it seem to bother Boris Johnson. I’d always thought London’s new mayor looked as if he had a libertarian side to him, which would reject this sort of blanket restriction on people’s rights. Nope: the same old economically libertarian, socially authoritarian Tory mindset runs through Johnson, like “Brighton” through a stick of seaside rock, as you’ll find in the rest of the Conservative Party. He told the Evening Standard, London’s daily paper, that it was “the type of solution that Londoners would welcome to the ‘huge problem’ of binge-drinking by the young.” Really, Boris? That would be why every comment so far on the story on the Standard‘s website has said what a stupid idea it is, and how it will make no difference at all except to hack off 18 to 20-year-olds. How huge a problem is it, and how is it not already affected by the ban on under-18s buying drink?
I love etymology. To binge, the Oxford English Dictionary reveals, was originally a Lincolnshire (and, it implies, East Midlands generally) dialect word meaning “to soak (a wooden vessel)”.
The metaphorical extension of meaning from soaking wood to soaking yourself was an easy journey, and by 1854 a book called A Glossary of Northamptonshire Words had recorded this figurative use for the word: “A man goes to the alehouse to get a good binge, or to binge himself.”
A dictionary of slang published in 1889 said of “binge” that it was used at Oxford to mean “a big drinking bout”. By the early 20th century the word was being used for parties at which large amounts of drink were consumed, with no particular sense that there was anything to criticise: the OED has a quote from 1922: “This is only a binge . . . just a jolly old bachelor-party.”
The word also took on secondary meanings, “to encourage”, and “to liven up”, as in a quote from the children’s novel National Velvet, published in 1935: “The information having been looked over and binged up here and toned down there . . . Reuter sent round the world the following message . . .”
It was probably from this sense of “livened up” that General (later Field Marshal Lord) Montgomery used to ask his officers in the Second World War: “Are you 100 per cent full of binge?”, according to The Times in 1942. Monty meant, apparently, were they full of spirit – zing – and confidence in their own ability and fitness, rather than whisky-ed up to the hairline. It was not a use that caught on.
It was fantastically satisfying to see the front page splash in The Times declare what I’ve been saying for years – that the government’s “safe drinking guidelines” of 21 units of alcohol for men and 14 for women a week have no basis in fact, and were literally made up on the spot with no evidence to support them 20 years ago, solely because the “experts” thought they ought to be saying something rather than nothing.
To quote The Times:
Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal and a member of the college’s working party on alcohol, told The Times yesterday that the figures were not based on any clear evidence … “David Barker was the epidemiologist on the committee and his line was that ‘We don’t really have any decent data whatsoever. It’s impossible to say what’s safe and what isn’t’. And other people said, ‘Well, that’s not much use.’ … So the feeling was that we ought to come up with something. So those limits were really plucked out of the air. They weren’t really based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee.”
On that basis, as The Times says, public health care policy, and private advice by doctors to individuals, has been conducted ever since, with the figures treated as if they were stone-hard, incontrovertible fact, wheeled out again for the latest report that claimed the middle classes are the new danger drinkers. To quote The Times again:
Professor Mark Bellis, director of the North West Public Health Observatory, which produced this week’s study, felt able to say that anyone exceeding the limits was “drinking enough to put their health at significant risk”. That a host of epidemiological studies had filled the intervening years with evidence to the contrary seemed not to matter one jot.”