Tuesday 17 April 2012

Temperance 2.0

There's another very good article at Points (the blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society) by Henry Yeomans, who wrote a wonderful article about the moral panic of binge-drinking a few years ago (referenced in this blog post).

Yeomans looks at the growth of "total consumption theory" which says that "the distinction of “responsible” and “irresponsible” drinking is fatuous, as the reduction of all forms of drinking is linked to decreases in harm".

It is true that there is often a correlation between high per capita alcohol consumption and high rates of alcohol-related harm, which leads some to call for supply-side measures that affect the whole population. This happens to be what the temperance movement has always believed and I entirely agree with Yeomans that we are seeing a return of traditional temperance, albeit not gospel temperance but medical temperance.

Although the current Government’s rhetoric is consistent with consequentialism, the growth of TCT and the imminence of minimum pricing suggest we are seeing a reversion back to the older, temperance-inspired faith in the inherently problematic nature of alcohol. Nowadays, this position tends to be justified in reference to medical, epidemiological, and demographic data, yet there is clear congruity with older discursive forces.

This can be seen in the general problematisation of all forms of drinking, which was initially advanced by Victorian temperance groups, as well as the historical lineage of certain groups. The Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) has been the primary agency involved in the campaign for minimum pricing and it includes prohibitionist groups, such as the International Order of Good Templars and the Institute of Alcohol Studies, as well as medical organisations. The British temperance movement continues, therefore, to have some influence over the way in which alcohol is understood and regulated in England and Wales.

There is an obvious problem with total consumption theory in that alcoholics/problem drinkers/binge-drinkers consume a disproportionate amount of alcohol. A nation with a lot of "irresponsible" drinkers is likely to have a high per capita rate, but it does not follow that measures which reduce consumption amongst the moderate majority will reduce harm. On the contrary, policies which treat everybody as if they were at equal risk (as implied by the silly claim that there is "no safe alcohol limit") do not only punish the majority for the 'sins' of the minority, but they fail to give adequate support to those who are genuinely at risk.

Part of the problem, in my view, is that the neo-temperance movement bases now its strategy on the anti-smoking movement (the Alcohol Health Alliance appeared soon after the SmokeFree Coalition successfully lobbied for the smoking ban and blatantly emulates it), but while the anti-tobacconists can justifiably view any reduction in consumption and/or prevalence as progress, the situation with alcohol is more complex. However, complexity, moderation and harm reduction do not sit easily with moral entrepreneurship and so they are being jettisoned in favour of an approach that views alcohol as basically evil. I predict that the drinking guidelines will be reduced to zero in the next decade to 'send out a clear message'.

The temperance movement will, however, face the old problem that their policies are not very popular.

Naturally it is politically preferable for the Coalition to garner mass support for their policies, yet the political advantages may be eroded in the long term if apparently responsible drinkers find they have to either drink less or pay more. If the ‘responsible drinkers’ of Britain do indeed unite behind minimum pricing, they may soon find that they have more to lose than the social problems associated with binge drinking.

Do go read the whole thing.


I'm grateful to Yeomans for pointing me to this article from 2009 in which Andrew Lansley, like Gordon Brown, rejected minimum pricing, then being demanded by Liam Donaldson.

The shadow health secretary, Andrew Lansley, said: "Sir Liam Donaldson's report is a frank admission that the government's alcohol strategy has failed. The government's response to his report is another example of Labour's confusion and incoherence.

"If there was an ounce of leadership from Labour ministers on this issue there would be no need for Liam Donaldson to try his shock tactics to kick-start government policy."

He also made it clear that the Tories had no intention of putting the chief medical officer's proposal into practice.

He added: "There is clearly a need for action. But it is very important to recognise that to deal with this problem we need to deal with people's attitudes and not just the supply and price of alcohol.

"Our proposals, which include measures to tackle loss-leader promotions and higher taxes on high-alcohol drinks aimed at young people, would address this without penalising the majority of moderate drinkers. This would seem to be a much better route to go down than distorting the whole drinks market."

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