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Cameron’s alcohol strategy is missing the point – a guest blog from a recovering middle class alcoholic

Posted on 26 October 2012 | 1:10pm

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.’

  • Gillie

    I agree entirely. But how do we tackle the drinking behind closed doors? By definition it is hidden and even if we (and I do include myself) kid ourselves we are merely having wine with dinner and a little more afterwards as we argue with the pundits on Newsnight how is a policy going to change our minds and attitudes. A genuine question, and one I would dearly love an answer to, but fear that perhaps this is one that is going to remain unanswered.

  • Mark D

    Totally true, but perhaps we ‘professional drinkers’ ought to know better, and should not need nanny state to step in.

    Best tonic is greater awareness of this issue so fewer slip into accidental alcoholism. More tonic less gin.

  • Anonymous

    Brilliant and brave guest blog. Thank you. I can’t see Cameron’s policy being of any use either. We are awash with cuts, cover ups, U turns, delays and waffle. Cameron is too concerned with symptoms and not enough with causes…I would say most alcohol tastes revolting, so it’s drunk to artificially alter the mood, to blank out the day, to forget and in the case of addiction, to reframe events and circumstances so as to cope. Get working on causes Mr Cameron and do a bit of responsible thinking. Again congrats on the blog. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I drink too much, I know I drink too much, but may I say a simple agreement with your suggestion – put the price of alcohol well up, on a par to say Norway. This would make it harder to get sloshed and avoid the path of least resistance in life.

    If someone wants to get sloshed cheaply, make them work harder in having to brew their own cheapo plonko, as the Norwegians do with their akavit, or however it is spelled. And it would result in more fruit trees and bushes grown, or dandelions used for brewing. But I do not advise irish potato poteen, that is true firewater.

    Above simple measure(!) would result in less boozing, but would the treasury accept that though? Ah-ha, now then, ey?

  • sarah turner

    Of course it won’t. Something here in Harrogate I have been banging my head against every wall in the town with. As I was once a hidden, middle class, mother dying for drink, I know exactly what is going on. But because of the stigma, shame, and just lack of empathy, women like me, are just drinking themselves into oblivion because they are not enough who will come out of the wine cellar and help them with an approach that they can relate to. None of them want to go into rehab, apart from the enormous cost financially, they are not time rich enough either. Most don’t expect to cross the invisible line from heavy drinking to alcoholism, but so many are there now, and there is nothing in this latest load of cods that will make them any better. I hope Soberistas can make a difference, we need far more intelligent women to be open and honest so that others can see that they are not alone. Sarah.

  • Oh dear; I am finding myself agreeing with Alistair Campbell!!! (1) Just raise tax on booze and make it illegal to sell at less than tax. (2) Get rid of all day drinking (3) Make it illegal and enforce it, to sell to seriously inebriated persons ((4) ban alcohol advertising before 9pm watershed (5) encourage Christiana nd other charitable rehabs as back up to serious shortage of full rehabs

  • Anonymous

    Ach, one down thumb, and I was being honest. Thought I was making sense. Alcohol consumption is complex in this numbnut country of ours, it is in our history and genetics since year dot.

    It is the free availability that is the problem. I remember when I was young, hardly any towns, let alone villages, had wine and beer off licences. Pubs with brief hours generally. Hardly any nightclubs. Governments have promoted other than that to get more cash into the treasury.

    Get it now, down thumber?

  • Anonymous

    I doubt that Cameron is interested in the health aspects of this – it simply goes back to the term coined by Steve Coogan: pleb management. Nothing wrong with drinking yourself senseless at home, just don’t expect the Coalition to help you kick the habit.

  • Anonymous

    Mark D, we are all, and I mean all, simple creatures, no matter how responisble we feel foolishly. Touch a drink, and we all like to get sloshed all and every day, if possible.

    As the housewife at home that buys that little bit too much cooking sherry, as long as husband does not notice. And the bottle of gin hidden in her hoover bag.

    Cracking rugger on Beeb Alba, half time, Scarlets ahead with four tries, but Edinburgh still in it Alastair. Interesting match.

  • Anonymous

    ..and (6) ban xmas. Hate to see those husbands getting sloshed when they are not used to it, and their wives allow it, because it is “xmas”. The wives even allow them to smoke cigars indoors then, for fuck sakes!

    Tell me if I am wrong, but that is what I have noticed.

  • Anonymous

    Ach, a xmas song, for winter, baby Jesus and all that western bullshite, my type of xmas song, from the small faces, on some street in europe,

    I’ll send you a chrissy card – will I eff!!

  • Anonymous

    28-29 to the Scarlets – told you at half-time it was an interesting one. Wish the Scots would turn out more to see these league games of Edinburgh and Glasgie – well less than four thousand Friday night at Murrayfield, well piss poor Alastair. Link;

  • Anonymous

    Unless one is actually an alcoholic, in which case treatment and help are needed, the solution is in our own hands. Speaking as one who still has problems with overeating and used to drink too much as well, I found the drink much easier to deal with than the food. I’ve simply stopped drinking Mon-Thurs, and enjoy a drink on Fri-Sun (eg a G&T and a couple of glasses of good wine each night). Enjoy it much more than I used to, in fact – and am drinking better quality wine.
    It’s just discipline – recognising that you’re in danger, and trying to get yourself out of it. Drinking less helps with the weight loss too, and I feel more in control and am beginning to control my food intake much better – I think the two do go together.
    I hope this doesn’t sound too holy – but I think those of us in the pre-alcoholic stage just have to recognise the danger (which means being open to all the messages about how much alcohol is OK and not deluding ourselves) and stop it.

  • Anonymous

    Welsh Kairdiff beeb posted highlights sunday night Edinburgh-Scarlets here Alastair, nice tries – look at George North’s second one, stunning it is,

    Don’t know what is going on with the Kairdiff Blues regional side – lost 59 to something in Dublin Saturday. It fills the welsh papers and online forums at the moment. They are all over the place, not right in the head, motivationally.

  • Anonymous

    Heck of a match last night Alastair, Arsenal winning by a rugger score 7-5 vee Reading.

    Reminds me a bit of Man U beating Northampton 8-2 in 1970, but that was totally one sided, with Georgie Best scoring a double-hatrick.

    Remember watching the highlights on MOTD at my aunties house when I was staying there for the weekend when I was eight. Leeds U then beat Man U in a double replayed tie in the semi, where Leeds then played Chelsea in the final, losing after a replay. Must have been one of the classic years for the FA Cup, much remembered.

    Original MOTD highlights of Man U-Northampton with Georgie Best’s six goals here, all fifteen minutes of it. Brilliant historical footie clip, with the legend Ken Wolstenholme commentating,

  • Anonymous

    …furthermore Alastair, excellent summary of the 1969-70 FA Cup here, Burnley losing to eventual winners Chelsea in the fourth round butt, after another one of those replays,

    See, WikiPee is good for something… : ) Notice the third place tie! O-O different!

  • Anonymous

    oops, sorry Alastair, was it Ken W? Sounds a bit like Hugh Johns, so that would make it ITV, and watching their footie highlights on Sunday afternoon, when I missed Sunday School because I was at my aunts.