Are you a ‘Traditional’ Drinker?

Beer

Back in 2018, Hannah Jane Parkinson, who writes on popular culture, health and politics in The Guardian asked… Is drinking becoming socially unacceptable?

I’m not sure the simple answer is yes, although I’m relatively convinced we could be heading in that direction. I already see examples of drinkers [of alcohol] being viewed as social outcasts; lepers and pariahs of a lower social caste. For an increasing number of people, particularly amongst the young, drinkers are now often seen as personae non gratae!

With so many young people eschewing alcohol, the beginning of the end of booze Britain is in sight. (Hanna Jane Parkinson)

But what do we actually mean by traditional, in relation to the individual or the specific drink? Traditional is a word that is relative to the age of the user. What constitutes ‘traditional’ drinking for my age group is very different to what would be considered traditional for someone in their 20’s, as it would be for somebody in their twilight years. The term traditional is also mostly subjective. That bottle of stout consumed by the pensioner, on his way home from the allotment every Saturday afternoon, is his traditional normality. Just as the group of young men (or women) would see their consumption of ten or twelve drinks on a Friday after work as their ‘traditional’ or normal. Traditional is a relative viewpoint but also one that is so often adversely influenced by the emotive media.

Which countries have the worst drinking cultures? In the UK the notion of enjoying yourself in the evening without alcohol is so unusual it can lead to you being called a freak (or at least miserable and antisocial) whereas drinking yourself insensible is not only acceptable, it is admired. (The Guardian)

Will alcohol follow the enforced demise of tobacco? I’m not so sure. Is enforcement by the nanny-state the best way forward for improving public-health? Does government need to provide legislation to speed up a process that is probably already occurring naturally? Additionally, and as with the smoking ban, are we likely to see perverse outcomes from any extended controls of alcohol consumption and if so, what might they be?

Before the English smoking ban, which came to fruition in 2007, many businesses voluntarily introduced bans on smoking, mainly as a result of public feedback. But the smoking ban also changed the country’s drinking habits (see BBC report) and not always in a good way.

Society’s sustained verbal onslaught against the pub trade (from some quarters), has actually worsened our social connection to alcohol in many ways. Add to this, the growth of profit focused pub company chains, the demise of independent family community hub businesses, the mostly failed cafe culture experiment (see here), and our inherent failure to control aggressive loss-leader marketing by supermarkets, either by minimum unit pricing or other means, and we probably should have been able to see a perfect storm on the horizon. But as with most issues born of social behaviours, is legislation really the way forward?

The rise in alcohol consumption and alcohol related harms in the UK in recent decades has gone hand in hand with increasing affordability of alcoholic beverages. (drinkaware.co.uk)

Alcohol prohibition in America delivered perverse outcomes like increased crime and violence. Prohibition, or the or practice of forbidding something by law, rarely turns out well. The failed War on Drugs is another prime example. Also, I question how anyone can see prohibition as morally defensible. Where are the human rights considerations in the state effectively removing an individual’s power of personal choice? Isn’t personal choice, based upon education, the best foundation for long-term and sustainable change?

The relatively new thoughts that have latterly made smoking unpopular have been mostly born in education, which in turn built the decline in social acceptability. Along with a few robust controls to manage the marketing of tobacco by the industry; starting with the ban on TV advertising of cigarettes in 1965, to the complete ban on all tobacco advertising in 2005. As it took more than five hundred years, from our tobacco introduction to it being a nasty taste in our mouth socially, we probably still have a long way to go with alcohol. But for me, I would still much prefer the route of education designed to develop informed choice in individuals.

Drinking [alcohol] is ingrained in the human psyche. As a species, we have been ‘at it’ since time immemorial (and long before we started to smoke). Back as far as the famous parable of Christendom‘s original procreation, we were drinking. Adam and Eve got tipsy in Eden Arms beer garden on their first date but they might not have been the first boozers, depending on your beliefs. Find out more from this Short History of Alcohol.

History of Alcoholic Drinks: Purposeful production of alcoholic drinks is common and often reflects cultural and religious peculiarities as much as geographical and sociological conditions. Discovery of late Stone Age jugs suggest that intentionally fermented beverages existed at least as early as the Neolithic period (c. 10000 BC) – wikipedia.org

I have a great deal of personal ‘lived’ and professional experience around most aspects of alcohol. From the provision, consumption and control of the stuff, right through to the myriad negative impacts of alcohol. Issues resulting in the need for treatment and recovery from addictions and dependency and death. To say I understand ‘alcohol issues’ is something of an understatement, but scientists have also examined why we drink alcohol.

10,000 years of cheers: why social drinking is an ancient ritual. Research usually focuses on health risks but evidence now suggests that alcohol had a crucial part to play in our evolution. (The Guardian)

Any scientific research aside, I believe the British relationship with alcohol changed (significantly for the worse) around 30-35yrs ago. Drinking became far more unhealthy and problematic and (partly) because of that, we have now become far more understanding of those impacts and facts; regardless of whether or not we choose to do something about them, from an individual perspective. But even before then policy makers were trying to combat the issues.

Alex Mold; ‘Everybody Likes a Drink. Nobody Likes a Drunk’. Alcohol, Health Education and the Public in 1970s Britain, Social History of Medicine, Volume 30, Issue 3, 1 August 2017, Pages 612–636

To compound the problems and since that social sea-change, alcohol based drinks have became much stronger, the industry, distributors and purveyors are far more ‘aggressive’ with marketing and promotional techniques. This factor alone, especially within a service and financially driven economy, is mostly understandable.

Yes, there have always been people who drink to ‘excess’ however; our individual problems and social impacts have mostly grown from that ‘norm’ being promoted to a level of social acceptance. That distinct shift towards excess and how we now view drinking has built so many of the problems we now face.

The plethora of problems we have with drink today have been created (in part) by that inherent human trait for seeking immediate gratification. And these ‘problems’ are increasing at exponential rates as we continue to rush headlong into each new technologically-advancing day.

Psychology Today, The Science of Choice: 10 Reasons We Rush for Immediate Gratification – We’re hard-wired to want immediate payoffs, even if it’s unwise. (Shahram Heshmat, PhD)

Stop PIGSociety, and the technology within it, are now intrinsically geared to satisfy our desires for immediate gratification. We are living in an age that can actually satisfy our urge for urgency. The problem of instant gratification (PIG) is one of the most basic drives inherent in humans – we have a tendency to rush towards pleasure and do all we can to avoid pain. This tendency is known as the pleasure principle (read more) and is also a building block for addictive behaviours.

But our past perceptions around ‘social’ drinking have been skewed; suddenly it’s all about ‘getting hammered’ and as fast as you possibly can and hang the expense, for ourselves, our family and our society. Being off your head on booze is mostly mostly accepted, by almost everyone. We’ve been feeding the P.I.G. and the pig has grown to bite us in the backside.

Why do the British Drink so much? From bar furniture to noise levels, modern pubs push consumption to the max – and these design and marketing tricks have affected one generation more than most. (BBC 2015)

Alcoholism, dependency and drinking to excess with unhealthy and problematic outcomes (for the individual and our wider society), has become normality and a reality. But many of the old ‘reasons’ for drinking to excess probably haven’t changed that much for those who drink to self-medicate, or choose to drink to enhance aspects of their self-indulgence. It could be argued that new social pressures and peer influences have compounded many of the old problems. It’s all hardly surprising when you consider; excess and immediate gratification are common traits reflected in many aspects of today’s society.

OK, so alcohol is part of what the human race is all about (or was) but too many, alcohol has become the sole purpose of life, as opposed to an ancillary. If we’d only known what we know now about alcohol, perhaps it would never have been allowed? But should we expect an entire nation to change what they do, legally and with little or no impact upon anyone else, just because of the behaviour of a tiny minority?

The greatest problem we face in society now, mostly for reasons of financial impacts on our public services, is continued working towards reversal of recent trends. Things are heading in the right direction but, many of these ‘problematic’ behaviours have sadly become ingrained in our society. They are accepted social normality. Lauded by a drinker’s peers, promoted by the industry, the media and TV drama but mostly… the beliefs and expectations of the many heading out for their ‘social’ (aka traditional) drink.

If you’re one of those who drinks too much, you probably try to convince yourself you just enjoy a harmless drink as a family or social tradition. Many do, but they also delude themselves into believing they don’t have problems. The Daily Mash viewed this and offered a few satirical tips on how to convince yourself you only drink ‘socially’ (see here).

The government is reviewing airport licensing laws. But after another drunken brawl on a plane, should passengers be breathalysed before boarding – or even forbidden from boozing? (The Guardian)

The common drinking etiquette of ‘getting hammered’ is now de rigueur, at home and abroad and in too many social circles. But going for a couple of beers after a hard day’s graft in the local factory, or a shift down the pit are no longer the reality. Neither is the sipping a cool libation from Rosie’s earthenware flagon, after a back-breaking day in the fields harvesting spuds.

Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples, and Rosie’s burning cheeks. Never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again… (Laurie Lee, Cider With Rosie 1959)

Most of these ‘traditional’ drinking activities have all but diapered… that was a long time ago, and certainly long before most of today’s boozing habits, in our heavily self-centred sedentary nation. But still…

Alcohol is a part of our lives. We use it for celebration, for comfort, to socialise, to wind down, to cope. We treat it differently to other drugs; it’s legal, socially acceptable, even encouraged. Yet in the UK one person every hour dies as a result of alcohol. (alcoholchange.org.uk)

Today, “with heavy industry mostly gone, cities such as Newcastle, Leeds and Liverpool have become worryingly dependent on the alcohol-driven night-time economy”, and this alone is one of the important and predominent background factors. Writing in The Guardian, Ian Wylie was right when he said; “…alcohol holds too much sway in our cities” (read more).

It’s also probably one of the main reasons why the attempted British ‘cafe culture’ drinks revolution ended in social disaster (see here). The provision of longer licensing hours simply led to alcohol binges and increased social and mental-health problems, according to academics (read more). But perhaps our young are now starting to lead the way for change?

Recent reports have also suggest that our student drinking culture has changed. Universities are seeing an increase in teetotal clubs and alcohol-free accommodation requests (read more). This rising demand comes from an increasing number of young people who don’t drink; 36% of the 16-24yr old age group (in full-time education) don’t drink alcohol, according to a survey by University College London.

We know that many of our students drink less regularly than they did five to 10 years ago, and we have many students who do not drink for cultural or religious reasons. (Osaro Otobo – President, Hull University Union)

Could this mean that we can finally ‘call time’ on all the problematic, unhealthy and anti-social aspects of our erstwhile but prominent ‘traditional’ drinking culture? In years to come, will the ‘Booze Britain’ label finally be consigned to history? All but forgotten (hopefully)… and all for the better? I’m probably getting a little old now to hold my breath for too long!

ONE – short film by Luke Bradford from Frogspawn Creative Limited on Vimeo.

More Reading

Looking at alcohol consumption in the UK today, the ONS statistics make it a little too easy to think that our future still looks bleak however; Alcohol Change UK say… Every day, 20 people die as a result of their drinking. But alcohol harm is not inevitable (find out more).

  • Drink Aware: an independent charity that works to reduce alcohol misuse and harm in the UK. A good source of factual information, without media spin or emotive headlines, that’s designed to help you make informed choices about your drinking (See HERE).
  • Alcohol Change UK: a leading UK alcohol charity, formed from the merger of Alcohol Concern and Alcohol Research UK. They aren’t against alcohol but work for a society that is free from the harms caused by alcohol.
  • This Truth about Alcohol information is provided by www.drugfreeworld.org, an American not for profit educational foundation.
  • Pubs in danger: Six charts on how the British drink (BBC Business 2018)
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