The Public Face of UK Alcohol Consumption

Traditional pub - geograph.org.uk - 1471650With around 18 establishments closing every week, official statistics suggest that the British pub industry is in serious decline. But is that a good thing? And if so, for who?

Should we be celebrating this decline, born in part, from people’s better informed and more healthy drinking choices? Is the situation leading to more healthy lifestyles and improved public health? But irrespective of all the above, should we also find the situation a little concerning?

Yes, increasingly informed and more healthy choices are clearly important outcomes, for the individual and our society as a whole. They are worthy of applause however, there is also a school of thought which suggests, we might have arrived at this point a little sooner, if not for the loss of so many of our ‘traditional’ British pubs.

Current official estimates suggest 18 pubs are closing every week, and 1 in 4 having closed since 2008, according to ONS statistics released in 2018.

Pubs and policy in 2019: …pubs ‘continue to face a range of pressures’ and ‘the pub landscape will continue to shift’ and ‘old school pubs’ look increasingly endangered. (Alcohol Policy UK)

Pubs, along with the remainder of the licensed trade, rightly continue to be a source of interest in many conversations about problematic drinking, as well as the debate around the impacts of alcohol policy that follows. This often comes from perceptions about the positive influence of pubs on a healthier drinking model, as opposed to the general negativity of supermarket off-sales, with their cheap and excessive quantity loss-leader promotions, favoured by the binge-drinking culture of so-called Booze Britain.

This issue isn’t something new. The number of UK Pubs has actually been in decline since the 1980s, despite some temporary and short-term upturns in that decline, over recent times. However, recent events that artificially slowed pace, such as weather phenomena (hot summers) or popular sporting events (World Cup), have done nothing to reverse trends. The intended ‘cultural’ changes expected from the previously lauded Licensing Act 2003, also had little effect and arguably, possibly did more harm than good.

In 2008, a Government review of the 2003 Act concluded; “people are using the freedoms but people are not sufficiently using the considerable powers” to tackle issues and problems. It went on to suggest that there was a need to “re-balance action towards enforcement and crack down on irresponsible behaviour” (download pdf).

Longer opening hours were a complete success. How did the experts get it so wrong? …it is telling that the best argument opponents of the Act can make in 2016, having said in 2005 that we were heading for Armageddon, is that it is an irrelevance; that it made no real difference either way. (Spectator, Health)

Back in 2016, Jon Foster, a senior research and policy officer at the Institute of Alcohol Studies saw the Licensing Act of 2003 as; “normalisation of a psychoactive, addictive substance and an all-night extension for crime and disorder” (see Cafe Culture is Pure Spin).

How the British ‘cafe culture’ drinks revolution ended in failure – Longer licensing hours led to alcohol binges and mental health problems, say academics. (The Guardian)

But ‘alcoholism‘ is mostly an expired term, especially amongst professionals working in the field of addictions, but not so within the media who still love to use it. The adjective is way too simplistic and often incorrect, especially as a descriptive for a wide spectrum of problematic issues. Media narratives around alcohol problems continue, almost on a daily basis, but many of these also serve to compound negative issues like stigma and distort facts.

In 2017, James Morris of the Alcohol Academy wrote; The media has a problem with alcoholism – and it’s stopping people getting help and he went on to examine why this reliance upon the word alcoholism (along with other narratives)?

One reason for over use of the alcoholism concept may be a lack of a common language to describe the nuances of heavy drinking behaviours. Alcoholism may be assumed to be synonymous with alcohol dependence, but it is inherently bound to stereotypes of hitting rock bottom and beliefs in its nature as a lifelong disease. (James Morris)

The disease issue is something I’ve covered several times previously (see here) but Morris succinctly pointed out in his piece; looking at all problematic issues [connected with alcohol] through the lens of alcoholism, is like “labelling anyone experiencing a period of low mood as clinically depressed.”

Not unexpectedly for me, the article resulted in some of that puerile debate about the positives and negatives of differing mutual-aid models that support alcohol addiction recovery, one of my ‘pet hate’ topics (see example).

In mitigation Morris pointed out that his aim had been to highlight the fact, problematic drinking is actually a spectrum; “there is no actual line between ‘normal drinkers’ and alcoholics” and then went on to point out – “Lots of people have a desire to stop drinking and many achieve it, with or without AA” (or indeed any other support structure or external service).

A key point in the Morris article was; lots of people have a desire to reduce their drinking but, irrespective of whether they scientifically (or socially) match the [alcoholic] adjective ‘measure’ or not, too often they’re still described as ‘alcoholics’ (rather than ‘harmful drinkers’). But those people still experience problems, resulting from their drinking, not least the associated stigma, mostly perpetuated by the media.

There’s a dangerous stigma attached to alcohol dependency, even today. That stigma is what kept me silent about the pain I suffered for so many years. It doesn’t only affect the drinker; stigma stops whole families affected by drinking from getting support and starting to heal. (Rob Cockerill)

As is so often the case, public opinions or perceptions around many issues fall within one of two polar opposites. Alcohol issues are no different and, thanks to the media, unhelpfully, you are either a ‘normal’ drinker or an alcoholic. The concepts of scales within a spectrum are key to our greater understanding of the issues.

Additionally, anyone with ‘problematic issues’ around alcohol consumption is just as relevant as the ‘alcoholic’ and importantly, deserving of any help and support they ask for, even if we currently see them as ‘normal’ drinkers.

In 2018 the broadcaster Adrian Chiles decided to ask himself some difficult questions about his drinking. He made a TV documentary for BBC2 called Drinkers Like Me in which he examined how; ‘nice, regular drinking’ soon becomes an analysis of much more, from his physical and mental health to society’s difficult relationship with alcohol.

Drinkers Like Me, definitely changed me. I used to drink an awful lot and hardly ever talked about it. Now I drink a lot less, but talk about it all the time. (Adrian Chiles)

Perhaps if we could finally quantify ‘normal’ that might help. Should we assume that ‘normal’ relates to those who don’t consume more than 14 units of alcohol per week (see here) or, as with some recovery support pathways, we could take the more puritan perspective, by dictating that only those who are totally abstinent are in fact ‘normal’?

Moderating, as opposed to abstaining, is seen as a bit of cop-out. Trust me, it isn’t. It requires constant thought; hundreds of decisions have to be made every week. But it is worth it: I am a bit lighter, a bit calmer, a bit healthier and what I do drink, I enjoy more. (Adrian Chiles)

So what about the drinking, in or out of pubs?

Perceptions about what constitutes ‘social’ or ‘normal’ drinking have undoubtedly changed over recent decades, but not always for the better, in my opinion. Despite the fact they probably still need some adjustment.

Continually trying to change peoples drinking choices, by means of legislative or taxation policy alone is futile. The American process of Prohibition in the 1930’s, along with the subsequent failed War on Drugs have proved that. Likewise, increased levels of puritan politics and virtue signalling are unlikely to impart change or improve the situation.

Change in the majority of people comes from a belief they have the ability to make the changes they want to achieve. Importantly, change also comes from an ‘informed’ choice… because they want to, not because someone else tells them they have to.

Thankfully, times and culture have changed and continue to do so. Many people are now making healthier choices; alcohol free drinks along with lower alcohol content drinks are becoming far more popular and consequently, far more widely available.

That said, people who have finally decided to make informed choices around their past ‘problematic’ drinking are being financially impacted by the drinks industry. There appears to be some overt commercialism at play, some insidious profiteering in the price structuring for many ‘new-world’ soft drinks. This clearly impacts upon choice, especially during periods of reduced ‘disposable’ income or financial constraint.

In my experience, there was a time where individual choices were sometimes more easily made, in the ‘controlled’ drinking environment of a traditional pub, as opposed to at home or on the street. But that is when pubs were community hubs of social cohesion and interaction, as opposed to the mostly commercially driven industrial production lines of today. Places that are too often happily catering for excessive and harmful drinking. Being a noisy, rude and uncontrollably drunk wasn’t cool, de rigueur or tolerated in the past but it certainly became acceptable.

Economies of Ale: Since 2008, nearly a quarter of pubs in the UK have closed – but the turnover of the pub industry is holding up and employment is on the rise. (The ONS, 26-Nov-2018)

The ‘old soak’ sat in the corner of a boozer concept probably hasn’t changed that much. But the ‘old soaks’ are now mostly sat at home, drinking unhealthy amounts of supermarket bargains in isolation, or homeless on the streets, drinking strong white cider and heading for oblivion, with little hope for change.

I tend to agree with Morris and his observations; reduced alcohol consumption amongst younger drinkers, along with the continued financial pressures (for both consumers and operators), suggests that the decline of pubs is set to continue. Any remaining life in ‘old-school’ pubs, looks increasingly fragile and any past advantages they once delivered to the community is unlikely to return, at least not any time soon.

Resources:

  • UK SMART Recovery: help participants to decide whether they have a problem, build up their motivation to change, and offer a set of proven tools and techniques to support recovery (see www.smartrecovery.org.uk for more information).
  • NHS Alcohol Support: Cutting down or stopping drinking is usually just the beginning, and most people will need some degree of help or a long-term plan to stay in control or completely alcohol-free.
  • Alcohol Policy UKAims to help those working in the alcohol field to stay up to date with news & developments (read more here). Its editor is James Morris of the Alcohol Academy. Got a question? Email them or call 020 8296 0134.

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