Tuesday 11 April 2017

Responsible drinking

Mark Petticrew is one of the many psychologists who got on the 'public health' gravy train to satisfy his appetite for controlling other people's lives. He was one of the main people responsible for lowering the drinking guidelines last year and when he is not complaining about the free exchange of goods and services, his main schtick is to carry out 'reviews' of voluntary agreements between government and industry.

If it doesn't involve taxing the poor or creating criminal offences, Petticrew isn't interested, and so he invariably concludes that initiatives like the Responsibility Deal don't 'work' whereas heavy-handed and regressive policies do (even when the latter have obviously failed or haven't even been tried).

His findings are therefore highly predictable. Public Health Responsibility Deal on healthy eating? "Could be effective" but needs "food pricing strategies, restrictions on marketing .. and clear penalties". Responsibility Deal for alcohol? Not very effective, needs "law enforcement" to make "alcohol less available and more expensive." Voluntary agreements in general? Can be effective but only when there are "substantial disincentives for non-participation and sanctions for non-compliance", ie. when they are not voluntary. 

You get the picture. For Petticrew, the iron fist is always preferable to the velvet glove. In a new article in the Journal of Public Health, he and a colleague have now moved onto the concept of 'responsible drinking' which he thinks is yet another crafty industry trick.

Industry responsibility messages particularly appear to frame responsibility around the individual drinker, rather than alcohol consumption itself, often focusing on a minority of ‘harmful drinkers’, as opposed to the majority of ‘moderate’ or ‘social’ drinkers, while presenting responsible drinking as a behavioural issue, rather than a health or consumption level issue.

This sentence is close to gibberish for a normal person but it is quite typical of how 'public health' views behaviour. Notice how the 'individual drinker' is separated from 'alcohol consumption' as if there were no connection between the two, as if consumption does not stem from behaviour, as if human agency does not exist and alcohol consumption is just something that happens to people. In the 'public health' view, consumption is not something that the individual chooses, it is something that the government controls by tinkering with prices and regulating advertisements.

The gist of Petticrew's article is that the concept of personal responsibility is used predominantly, if not exclusively, by drinks companies to disguise the fact that it is they, not us, who decide how much we drink...

The term ‘responsible drinking’ was used almost exclusively by industry bodies (AB InBev, Diageo and DrinkIQ), or industry-funded bodies (Portman Group, IARD and ICAP). 

This conclusion is based on a Google binge (sorry, a 'web-based document search') which compared how the term 'responsible drinking' was used by industry groups and neo-temperance groups. Petticrew says that this amounts to 'comparing industry and non-industry sources' but it is nothing of the sort. Lots of 'non-industry sources' use the term 'responsible drinking' but Petticrew doesn't mention them because it would ruin his narrative.

The British government, for example, has long promoted 'responsible drinking' and explained what it means by the phrase:

Through our Public Health Responsibility Deal, companies have agreed to encourage a culture of responsible drinking, which will help people to drink within guidelines.

You can see the same term being used approvingly by all sorts of institutions, including the BBC, the NHS, the police, the Methodist Church and Sheffield University. The term 'moderate drinking', which Petticrew also takes umbrage at, is even more widely used by academics and medics.

It only takes a brief 'web-based document search' to find evidence of this, so who did Petticrew think he was fooling? If his little study shows anything at all, it is that a handful of anti-alcohol groups refuse to use a phrase that is commonly employed by the rest of society, presumably because they don't believe in personal responsibility. It is they who are the aberration. 

The term did not appear to be used in any of the documents sourced from PHE or Alcohol Concern, and was used once by the WHO

So the term 'responsible drinking' doesn't suit the agenda of the 'public health' lobby. So what?

While the meaning of ‘responsible drinking’ in the context of these messages is unclear, as the term is typically not defined

This is not true. The government defines it as drinking within the guidelines (see above) and so does the industry. Here is a typical label on an alcoholic drink in the UK.

It seems pretty obvious that the 'drink responsibly' plea is directly related to the unit recommendations that appear immediately below it. Petticrew admits that the message is sometimes 'presented alongside official guidelines' but complains that the advice 'may conflict with official guidance'. In so far as this is true, it is only because the guidelines were changed by Petticrew and his cronies last year and the drinks companies are still deciding whether or not they should put information on their products that is blatantly untrue (I hope they don't although some are already doing so.)

As the label shows, responsible drinking goes beyond following the guidelines and encompasses not drinking if you are pregnant or driving, but it is quite clear that 'responsible' or 'moderate' drinking is defined by the drinks industry, in part, as drinking within the government's guidelines. Given how low the guidelines were even before Petticrew and the temperance lobby set about them, this is a rather extreme interpretation of responsible drinking. The message to drink responsibly would be perfectly valid if it had no unit-based definition at all.

He concludes:

We conclude that public health practitioners should be aware of the derivation and use of concepts such as ‘responsible’ or ‘moderate’ drinking by industry and industry-funded bodies, as these may exist to promote industry agendas and undermine public health agendas.

Good grief. The paranoia is rampant.

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