Tag Archive - alcohol abuse

Wine, drugs and an unhealthy debate

For an audio version of this post, click here:

I should warn you now, I am a dedicated proponent of a non-communicable disease.

There is only ALCOHOL!

The debate has been stirred by a report by Professor David Nutt, the former UK chief drugs advisor, published in The Lancet called “Drug harms in the UK“. However, it continues a debate we had at the recent European Wine Bloggers Conference as well, on “Freedoms, Rights and Responsibilities”.

What I discovered in that very interesting session in Vienna, with presentations by Adam Watson-Brown (Information Society & Media Department, EU Commission), George Sandeman (representing Wine In Moderation) and Ken Payton (blogger at Reign of Terroir), was exactly how governments and official bodies think of alcohol – and it makes a BIG difference in understanding their approach to the debate.

In this debate, there is no “Wine”. There are no “Spirits”. There are no “Alcopops”, “RTDs“, “artisanal cordials” or even “record-breaking alcoholic beverages”. There is no ‘good alcohol’ or ‘bad alcohol’. There is only ALCOHOL!

ALCOHOL is not a feature of a beverage, a natural by-product of age-old techniques, nor even an industrial process. Alcohol is a drug, and its consumption is a ”non-communicable disease”.

“The World Health Report 2002: Reducing risks, promoting healthy life, identifies five important risk factors for non-communicable disease in the top ten leading risks to health. These are raised blood pressure, raised cholesterol, tobacco use, alcohol consumption, and overweight.” WHO fact sheet No. 273

In other words alcohol is seen as a disease to be eradicated.

It is like banning bridges because they can be used to jump off

Before I go further, let me state that I agree that alcohol abuse is a problem is many societies, and a factor in many problems, but I believe alcohol is also very different from most of the other drugs listed in Prof. Nutt’s study and so this debate is very ‘unhealthy’. Let me explain how.

The chart we have all seen today is this:

Most harmful drugs - The Lancet

This illustrates that, according to a long list of criteria relating to the harm to the individual and also harm to society, and its widespread consumption, alcohol comes top of the list, delivering to the world’s media the nicely controversial headline: “Alcohol is more harmful than heroine“.

What this chart, and this way of thinking completely misses, in my opinion, is that this is only half of the story. It is like banning bridges because they can be used to jump off.

Take a look again at the list, but from a different perspective. Which of these items listed CONTRIBUTE to individuals and society, if any? Where are the BENEFITS? I think most of us would be very hard pressed to say that Crack, Methylamphetamine and Heroine contribute to society in any meaningful way. [Heroine is interesting. Unlike 'Alcohol', this chart doesn't list 'Opiates' where Heroine = BAD but medically administered Morphine = GOOD]. However, the two ‘legal’ drugs on the list, Tobacco and Alcohol do.

Another look at Nutt Report on drugs and alcohol

Another look at Nutt Report on drugs and alcohol

[note: this is my crude attempt at modifying the graph, sourced from The Lancet, for illustration only]

(I’m not going to make the case for Tobacco, others can do that, but even here there are some benefits to society from taxation, even if they are outweighed by the costs.)

But alcohol IS different.

Let’s take wine, but you could argue a similar case for beer and some spirits too. The benefits include:

  • Huge revenue streams from Duty & VAT receipts to the Treasury
  • Vast numbers of people employed in production, supply, retail, marketing and distribution (not just winemakers, but bar and pub owners & staff, importers, wine shop assistants, glass manufacturers, cork companies, shipping companies, label printers, designers, journalists, educators, etc.)
  • Sustainable environmental benefits from land cultivated, often where little else would be viable, and people making a living in rural areas instead of moving to cities
  • Developing tourism infrastructure around regions dependent on wine production
  • Thousands of years of historic and cultural legacies in production and consumption

I’m not even going to touch on the contentious issue of potential individual health benefits from moderate drinking.

I am not in a position to quantify these benefits, but others such as the WSTA might. However, it is obvious that these benefits do exist.

One of the main reasons this needs to be taken into account is because the blunt weapons of punitive taxation and medical warnings can disproportionately reduce the BENEFITS instead of reducing the harm. Raising taxes on alcohol might cut consumption rates, but it also costs jobs and tax revenue. It reduces the margin and incentive to increase quality for retailers and producers because their products are less affordable. This benefits large brands less connected to any local, cultural investments and driven by sales volume growth (which is the opposite of the policy’s aim).

It won’t be just those who are abusing alcohol the most that are affected, but everyone else as well. The approach is backfiring. We already have some of the highest taxes in the world, yet their own evidence shows that things are still not improving.

We have to change the rules of the debate they have set

I went to the EWBC hoping to make the point that wine blogging can have a positive impact on society, through education and reconnecting consumers with the cultural roots of wine enjoyment so that alcohol may be consumed responsibly. I realised, sadly, that the anti-alcohol lobby wasn’t just ignoring us, we weren’t even speaking the same language.

So, how do we engage with the discussion? We have to change the rules of the debate they have set. It is a time for much more concerted efforts by wine lovers and wine businesses.

Unfortunately, printing messages on labels and adverts about “drinking responsibly” are not the answer.

We need clearer data on the benefits of the alcohol trade to individuals, governments, countries and regions. We need to broaden out the debate about dealing with alcohol abuse from the purely medical, to the cultural and economic areas too. And we need informed politicians willing to have a sensible debate about these points without fear of being pilloried by the media.

[UPDATE: 03/11/2010 An interesting follow-up on this debate from an NHS site is here]

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Open minds for troubled times

Chair
Come on in for an interview!
Image by tommy forbes via Flickr

I’ve reported, commented and complained before on this blog about how the UK government treats consumers and business when it comes to alcohol.

My position has usually been one of incredulity, cynicism and anger at the decisions being taken by politicians, in particular when it comes to taxation of alcohol.

I’d like to extend an offer to a politician or civil servant to explain to me, in person, what this country’s government is doing, and why.

I was prompted to write this post by the announcement that a UK parliamentary committee was to be set up to examine:

… alcohol-related health problems and the consequences of these for the NHS, plus the role of the alcohol industry, police and government departments in addressing alcohol-related harm. [as well as] … examine “whether the drinking culture in England should change, and, if so, how”. (from just-drinks)

Just my sort of question!

Governments and politicians like to be SEEN to be doing something, no matter how ineffective in practice. In general, I do believe that politicians are scared of talking sense about alcohol (or many matters of real personal choice for that matter) and governments are quite happy to continue to be able raise lots of money from a ‘sin tax‘.

The problem is that the government has become dependent on the money raised from Duty on alcohol. They couch their revenue generation as a “strategy” to combat alcohol abuse whilst damaging businesses that could help to change people’s attitudes to alcohol and still, in my opinion, not doing nearly enough to address the underlying causes of that abusive behaviour.

I think many in the wine business in particular would probably agree.

HOWEVER, I will also admit that my experience is limited. I work with great wines, wines made by people who care about their product and which is sold mainly to those who appreciate them. I don’t have much day to day experience of the front line of a binge-drinking culture that I admit does exist in places in this country.

So I’d like to extend an offer to a politician or civil servant to explain to me, in person, what this country’s government is doing, and why. I don’t want a press release, I want a discussion. I’m prepared to post the results on here, either as a new post or in the comments. I would even consider filming a meeting and putting it on the blog for others to view.

Is that you? Or maybe, you know someone who could come along to chat? Let them know!

I am not a campaigner with an agenda as such. I’m not promising those who agree with me to be the best prepared, most vocal champion of the alcohol business (there are people like the WSTA for that). I am not a politician, nor expert debater. However, the government needs to convince me, and people like me, if we are to support their current approach, and if they can’t, then listen to us about finding another way forward.

I’ll even give you an idea of the questions:

  1. What evidence is there that high duty rates stop young people from drinking too much?
  2. What meaningful dialogue can you point to that shows you admit that alcohol consumption is a perfectly acceptable part of our society & culture in moderation? Have  you ever done anything other than preach?
  3. By focusing on the price/cost mechanic, are you not damaging small, independent importers/retailers who might engender a respect/appreciation for alcohol, and instead driven people to the multiple grocers, with their massive purchasing power to offset that duty cost, where no such education takes place?
  4. Is the excess consumption of alcohol not more closely related to opportunity IN GENERAL, rather than opportunity to buy alcohol? Would fewer kids get blind drunk if you inspired them with alternatives for their time & effort, rather than chastising them?
  5. What about the law-abiding middle classes of moderate consumers who are being criticised for their alcohol consumption? Where is the data to back your 21 units safe limit campaign?

These are just some of the questions off the top of my head. If you have any others you’d like to ask, let me know.

So, then, who’s willing to try and convince me? There’s a chair waiting!

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Social Drunking

My last post despaired against law-makers for their approach to problem drinking.

I called upon them to think bigger thoughts and help shape a new common goal that might divert attention from day to day angst leading to binge drinking (oh, and help to save the planet in the process).

A couple of things have occurred to me since that post.

1. It will never happen. Such a movement will have to come from ‘me’/'us’, not ‘them’. [thanks to my lovely wife for reminding me of my previous thoughts about this topic. In my 'red mist' I got rather carried away with utopian dreams]

2. I’ve fallen, once again, into the trap of thinking others are “like me” – “I thinking” in Mark Earls’ excellent Herd Thinking work

I assume that others could/should think like me about alcohol (or anything) simply because I hold it to be true. But they don’t. However much I try and explain the error of their ways.

Are we the same? After all, I drink alcohol. Binge drinking kids and young adults drink alcohol.

No, the actual similarity is that we drink to socialise.

I drink to learn and explore, in the main. I like to share that knowledge gained with others who like wine in particular (I posted on this some months ago)

Those that are the target for this sort of legislation drink to socialise too, but alcohol, drinking to the point of drunkenness, is the objective of socialising, not as a subject to be explored. I have now seen this called “Social Drunking” – a great term for a sad state of affairs.

I found this presentation, courtesy of my friend Andrew (who knows a fair amount about this subject and helps to bring solid research to this debate, not just my ramblings), to be very enlightening. It is worth reading through it just to see how these 18-25 year-olds think about alcohol.

It would probably be unfair of me to point out that wine plays no part in their drinking (except for the one woman who mentions it in relation to ‘sensible’ drinking at home). All of those involved in alcohol have a shared responsibility to do something about this problem, but it could be that there is something about wine, or how it is perceived, that differentiates it and that could help us improve drinking habits.

I would point out, however, that price of alcohol, or availability from off licences did not figure at all.

I still think that learning about CONSEQUENCES, whether for our planet, through our wasteful consumption, or short-termist commercial thinking impacting on the sustainability of jobs and culture, would also have an effect on people’s attitudes to alcohol.

Certainly, one consequence of my own drinking is that I feel a responsibility to do something, however small, to try and encourage a sensible approach to alcohol – by young drinkers and legislators alike.

You never know!

Scotland and Binge Drinking

Although I consider myself to be “Scottish”, I am really part of a substantial diaspora of Scots who feel quite passionately linked to the country whilst not having lived there much during our lives.

In my case, it was a visit to my family at least once a year for about 12 years, plus 4 years at University. I cannot therefore really comment on the day to day issues of alcohol abuse in the country, but I am quite aware that Scotland has major health issues associated with alcohol and drugs. Despite this, I think it is still important to speak up against decisions being taken that simply will not have any effect except to frustrate and inconvenience the vast law-abiding majority of drinkers.

You may already have heard that today the Scottish Parliament will be discussing the possibility of raising the age at which you can buy alcohol in the shops to 21 from the current age of 18. This will not apply in pubs and restaurants, only off licences.

To read more, click here for the Radio 4 Coverage (probably only available for 7 days from 16/06/2008) or here for the article.

I have already read a reasoned response from The Tasting Note which I encourage you to read as it prompted the following thoughts.

I agree with almost everything Peter says*. Why is it that politicians cannot think straight about alcohol? I posted something along these lines some time ago and it obviously needs updated. I have also mentioned my thoughts on binge drinking and taxation.

Education is key to this, such as the potentially useful developments at the Responsible Drinkers Alliance, but so is something else.

I find myself, maybe as I grow older (!), wishing that our country (Scotland or UK, whatever you identify with) had a shared purpose.

It occurred to me recently, listening to Bill Bailey on Desert Island Disks (see, told you I was getting old & fuddy-duddy) that in his past, as with many of the more creative personalities I happen to like that have appeared on this show, he was very much into punk music – it was liberating. It was an ACTIVE rebellion.

Now, the watchword is … Whatever!

We have never been so ****** PASSIVE. And instead what do we do? We go out and get blind drunk, then vent frustrations, anger, anxiety and energy on each other.

Our politicians, of any political persuasion, need to find ways to engage all of us in something positive, not to fiddle around the edges with confusing ‘initiatives’ attacking the symptoms rather than the causes of this behaviour.

Education can start the discussion and even foster the conversation, but what alternatives are we offering people, whether they are children, young adults, or even disillusioned adults?

I realise this may not be the forum for this sort of topic as we are straying deep into the territory of political blogs, but I think it is part of the discussion.

If I was to suggest a possible path to follow, it would be to take the green agenda and REALLY go for it. We could make Scotland, or the UK, a real leader in this area and get everyone involved in recycling, living in a sustainable way and thinking of the implications of our actions.

There is no direct link with reducing binge drinking, but if we were engaging people, especially young people, and giving them opportunities to get involved in something they believed was meaningful, then I am certain it would be addressed.

The combined benefits to the planet and our society would be great, and we would have a tough, but useful, goal to share – and this could translate to all walks of life, including wine.

I sincerely hope that the Scottish Parliament will see that raising the legal age for buying alcohol is not the answer any more than simply increasing the price of alcohol through taxation or demonising the product itself.

For goodness sake, can we not have an adult conversation about this?

See also: CARDAS – Campaign Against Raising the Drinking Age in Scotland

* It is just a side issue, but one thing I am not sure about is the idea of limiting what individuals can buy. You’d easily get around it by buying from two shops and all it does (again) is annoy respectable drinkers wanting to buy alcohol. I do, however, think it would be a good idea to encourage ALL of those who buy alcohol to prove their age. Think 21, or 25 or whatever is fine, but it just makes everyone less uncomfortable and does make it easier to go after irresponsible retailers if necessary.

Are you Drinking or Thinking?

I have read a number of posts recently concerning the link between the enjoyment of wine & “thinking”, for example here and here.

I believe that really enjoying wine does require the consumer to exercise not only their senses, but also their imagination, and so has to involve “thinking” to some extent.

Unfortunately, most people already have “too much on their mind” and therefore filter out what they see as “unnecessary” or complex information.

Philosophers and Social Psychologists can debate the finer points of this and either disagree or provide more details, but, stated simply, I believe that the average person’s ability to consciously understand and process information is limited, and for simplicity’s sake, let’s call this process their “mind”.

Two people quoting point scores at each other is not a conversation, it is a game of Top Trumps

This is important for the wine business because if it is true, getting busy consumers to think about your wine or brand means competing not only with what is already “on their mind”, but with every other product, brand and person trying to get in on the action too. This concept is called “Share of Mind” or “Mindshare“.

But who cares?

Well, there are many related issues that this touches upon.

1. A recent study in the US by Constellation, apparently showed that a large number of US wine consumers were “overwhelmed” by the choice of brands available. In theory, if you convert them to consumers of your ‘easy solution’, then you’ve got a hit wine brand. Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy as saying “here is a new wine to make your life easier”, you have to get their attention before they’ll hear the message. To get a share of mind from this audience, you have to fight VERY hard, and that means a lot of money in advertising. More on this topic soon, but it is also worth reading Dr. Debs’ view first.

2. Why are point scores for wine reviews so popular? Well, a score summarises all those tiresome descriptions, positive feelings, negative complications, and vinous complexities into a neat comparison tool.

“87 is greater than 86, so that wine is better!”

Points help to avoid any need to research, compare and analyse, and summarise it all into something that allows for simple calculations. Why fight for a share of mind when you can supply them with a easy reference tool? Unfortunately, it does nothing for the Wine Conversation. Two people quoting point scores to each other is not a conversation, it is a game of Top Trumps.

I’m not really saying that scoring itself is a bad idea. When well used, points can play a positive role as additional bits of information, but generally speaking they are taken out of context and misused – somewhat like the ‘dark side of the force’.

3. There are many discussions about wine culture around the world. Does the UK have a wine culture or just a drinking culture? Does the US have a wine culture? What is the European wine culture today? I’d suggest that the difference between a drinking culture and a wine (or beer) culture, is whether there is a conscious involvement in the choice of consumption.

The person who rolls up to the bar and orders “a lager”, or ” glass of house wine” (or even arguably those used to ordering well established “brands” like Pinot Grigio) are in the former. The choice figures only in their mind as an alternative path to inebriation and no more. However, even a cursory glance at a wine list, and a choice of a variety or region they have some association with, forms part of a wine culture, however shallow.

I could go on, but most of these points deserve a post in their own right.

Much of this was kicked off by the posts I mentioned above. For some of us, even “comfort wines” are wines that evoke feelings, memories or our imagination.

And this brings me to my final thought. The more we bother to THINK about wine, its history, its agricultural roots and its role in our culture, the less we are likely to abuse it as a mere alcoholic drink. If this helps to reduce the harm to individuals and society stuck in a drinking culture, then we are doing our job well.

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