Can David Cameron Really Tackle the ‘Binge Drinking Scandal’
David Cameron has vowed to tackle the many problems associated with alcohol consumption throughout the country, including, as he put it, the ‘scandal of binge drinking’; but when so many Prime Ministers have tried before him, is this anything new or just a diversionary political tactic?
The problem with his proposed solutions is that they are no different from what has been tried before, there is no imagination or innovation in the approach and the major flaw is that the approach is utterly disjointed. Too many parties are involved, all pulling in different directions and none willing or able to consider anything other than their own interests.
The drink manufacturers, the supermarkets, the pub companies, the hospitality industry, the treasury, the police, alcohol charities, the NHS, Doctors, the government itself and opposition politicians, all have specific targets and messages from which they feel they can’t deviate, without showing a perceived ‘weakness’.
It is this inability for anyone to take a more inclusive approach, to be bold or to be willing to compromise, which pits them against each other. The outcome being that the general public are left in limbo, not knowing who to believe or which way to turn for balanced honest information; as the protagonists argue amongst themselves.
Despite the confusion, much of the time the messages which the different parties put out are very accurate; the confusion comes because they tend to be one dimensional and biased towards their own objectives.
Who for example would argue with the most specialised medical professionals when it comes to their field of knowledge?
Who could argue with the charities who confront the worst consequences of alcohol abuse and addiction, when they say they need more funding to continue and expand the great work they do with those afflicted by alcoholism?
Who could argue with responsible alcohol retailers up and down the country who take every precaution to ensure that they protect those who enjoy their facilities and the communities which they serve, when they say that more regulation, more cost and greater restriction on their business will force them out of business?
What all parties have to do is learn to compromise and compromise doesn’t mean that we ignore the significant health concerns in relation to alcohol or that we ignore the importance of business profitability or that we disregard the impact alcohol has on our outstanding emergency services or that we overlook the importance of pubs, bars, restaurants and other alcohol retailing businesses to our local communities.
Compromise means all working together to find a solution which although might not meet 100% of any one lobbying groups objectives, gives the general public the credibility to make more informed decisions based on calm, accurate and sensible information, rather than preaching at them from all sides.
The long term solutions do not lie in business behaviour or health professionals warnings, they lie in a cultural and behavioural shift in the general public; that takes time, commitment and persistence.
Therein lies one of the great problems; governments and politicians in the era of ‘celebrity politics’ find it difficult to see too far into the future; especially when getting there is a vote loser today.
Cultural differences take time, sometimes a generation or more to implement, the hard work in changing attitudes carries little reward and a lot of work. Being dictated to as we have been for a generation, has only led to the general public ‘rebelling’ against the message and where a parents generation rebel, so their children will undoubtedly find the need to go further still.
Doctors can scream from the roof tops that 3 units a day causes you harm and they have the scientific proof to back it up. Why doesn’t that stop us?
In the clear light of day, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. When a product is recalled because associated health problems have been identified, the public react almost immediately and with abhorrence; they feel they have been misled and they stop purchasing the product. Why is there not the same reaction to alcohol?
Answering this question would require me to write a thesis, the simplistic answer is that there has been a distinct shift in who we respond positively to. Populations have more freedom now than ever and are bombarded with information, advertising, product placement, television, internet, news media, ‘role models’, celebrities, family, friends, peer pressure, government, the list is endless.
The problem is who should we believe and more importantly who do we believe? Watch an hour of television and you’ll experience the mixed messages:
- Reality TV shows - where young people seem to be having a great time and this is accompanied by them drinking shots and ‘downing’ pints in what many young people may see as aspirational circumstances, as they view those involved as ‘celebrities’.
- Reality police shows - where the police deal with drunks, fighting and drink fuelled anti-social behaviour, portrayed in an exciting, funny and entertaining way. It almost seems like this behaviour is what is expected of you on a night out and as for the consequences, a night in a cell and an £80 fine might for many impressionable people seem like a ‘rite of passage’.
- A documentary - showing in graphic detail the ‘shock’ tactic of doctors demonstrating what alcohol abuse can lead to; cancer, high blood pressure, injury, heart disease, increased level of strokes, premature ageing, diabetes, liver disease and ultimately death. They then tell you that to avoid these horrific consequences you should drink no more than 2 to 3 units a day. In reality that’s one pint of beer (of 5%abv).
This last example demonstrates best the confusion within much of the public when it comes to alcohol. To be told drinking any more than a pint of beer a day can lead to cancer, heart diseases, all those other ailments and death, doesn’t feel very real to most people (I’m not disputing the scientific facts). To be lectured to that they should lay off alcohol one or two days a week makes them feel like the message is for someone else, someone with a drinking problem… not for them… they can control how much they can drink…; but can they?
How do you control how much you drink when you have no idea how much that is? I teach people every week who work in the licensed retail and licensed hospitality industry, these are people who sell alcohol every day. The vast majority have little or no idea how much alcohol they are recommended to drink in a week and those who do know the unit count, have no idea what ‘a unit’ represents.
When you bring % abv into the mix (which represents the strength of alcohol in a drink), it complicates the message even further. When I read reports on alcohol consumption in the media about half the time they get it wrong, even government ministers can regularly be heard misquoting alcohol strength against units; what chance have the general public got?
Take the recent article from the BBC, Campaigns warns of drinking ‘little too much’ alcohol, which speaks of ‘2 large glasses of wine’ what does that actually mean?
A large glass of wine legally means 175ml glass. Most people will however refer to a 250ml glass of wine as a ‘large’. Wine varies in strength between 8% abv and 16% abv (alcohol by volume) therefore a 175ml glass of wine can contain between 1.4 units and 2.1 units, a 250ml glass of wine varies between 2 units and 4 units.
If David Cameron wants to tackle the scandal of binge drinking he needs to think again, stop thinking he will be able to achieve it in his time in office and start planting the seeds, seeds which maybe his children will benefit from in a generation. The problem has to start with an honest message and a more simple message; it is certainly time to rethink units vs. abv…
It’s time for all sides to think again and for government to take it rightful position, not on one side or the other, but as the mediator representing the people and protecting them from the excesses from all sides.
Think more radical, think long term, maybe it’s time to shift the emphasis away from retailers and into the hands of the consumer?
Should we be looking at alcohol licences for consumers rather than retailers…? There is a topic which might be worth exploring in a future article.
Date – 15th February 2012
Submitted by – Peter Mayhew is the Managing Director of Beyond the Blue Training & Consultancy.
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