Forget drinking by numbers – enjoy your Christmas tipple!
A few months ago, a palm-sized piece of red and white card dropped onto my doormat. It was a device for finding out how many units and calories are in different amounts of various drinks, designed to fit in a handbag or back pocket. Like a child’s picture book, you pull the loose piece of card in the middle up until you can read the relevant drink and amounts through a little window. Surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to have caught on. Apart from at a push being helpful to someone on a stringent diet, it is difficult to imagine people pulling these out regularly in pubs.
Back in July, it was reported that MPs were to review Government guidelines on drinking and perhaps relax them following European norms. The announcement came after an uncomfortable admission three years ago from one brave member of the Royal College of Physicians, responsible for setting the recommended amounts back in 1987, that their figures (21 units for men each week; 14 for women) had in fact been ‘plucked out of the air’.
The case reveals the grasping nature of alcohol policy; in particular, its reliance on scrappy scientism – or tendency to defer to the latest dubious study – tempered only by an obsession with what happens in the supposedly more civilised continental Europe. In basing drinking ‘guidance’ on arbitrary units, policy indicates a lack of moral and substantially public orientation in how we think about booze as a society. For instance, is it a de facto problem if people can’t spend an evening without a drink? And what does it say if younger generations drink on park benches and not in pubs? These are searching questions about how we organise contemporary life, but such nuances make no sense in the simplistic, one-size-fits-all framework advocated by policy.
Worryingly, unit-counting has been increasingly presented by policy-makers as a more rational, civilised approach to drinking over recent years. We are now regularly advised to be ‘drink aware’ of how many units – and, tellingly, calories – that various beverages contain. Often this is seen as simply offering helpful information. But rather than offering clarification, policy encourages us to see commonplace activities involving liquor as a reason for unease, necessitating official supervision to ensure we undertake them in the ‘right’ way. At worst, this hurries on a tendency to slide from the amount of alcohol ‘recommended’ by officials to how much the Government ‘allows’. The deeper impulse encourages people to ask official state permission before having a drink at the expense of their own good judgement, an authoritarian impulse further evident in patronising ‘Think 25’ policies.
There is a chasm between everyday life and official policy when it comes to drinking. Despite appearances, ‘drinking by numbers’ – or unit-counting – represents an irrational and unsavoury approach to booze. It betrays an unhealthy neuroticism about normal and reasonable adult behaviour.
More broadly, policy-makers’ shallow preoccupation with counting units serves to reorient our entire relationship to alcohol, both as individuals and as a society. Reconceptualising booze through the prism of units individualises and hence pathologises drinking, ripping it out of its social context. The whole idea of keeping a constant tab on our units encourages us to relate to our own (usually normal) drinking habits like little managers, measuring out what we drink, keeping paper trails of our consumption and reporting our performance to some imagined giant supervisor in the sky. This isolates us from our own cultural experience, undermining a shared cultural fabric of civilised drinking behaviour.
There is also a severe moral blindness in unit-counting: drinking the ‘right’ amount of units each day upon waking up is surely problematic; likewise, refusing the champagne for a wedding toast because you’ve had your daily fill is plain nasty. Drinking in real life is a nuanced affair.
In this way, drinking by numbers does much violence to both the quiet dignity and wide-eyed boisterousness of everyday life. First, in measuring alcohol levels it construes drinking on too narrow terms of brute intake, regardless of the size, shape or tolerance of the person involved. The units approach thus naturalises lazy cultural assumptions about drink (incidentally including the idea that women somehow should not drink as much as men). More importantly, if you believe drinking is wrong, this has nothing to do with percentage intake but with moral or practical concerns bound up with your particular situation. Similarly, if you believe drinking is the feast of reason and flow of the soul, along with eighteenth century poet Alexander Pope, you will not be much persuaded by banal counsel over units.
This is because when it comes to drinking – in whatever form – this is wrapped up with social life and often expresses itself in spontaneous ways. Drinking is shaped by shared rituals and norms of behaviour where limits are set by collective negotiation, often buttressed by convention. Moreover, whether drinking at home, in a nightclub or down the pub with others, the responsibility for saying where the limits are lies most properly with the people involved. It is simply no matter for policy-makers or scientists.
This point is of central importance, since official thinking is blind to the civilising, human dimension of drinking – and hence of its underlying moral character. There is always an important discretionary aspect to both drinking with others and buying booze that allows people to regulate themselves without the need for official intervention. This cultural element is in the most part a rational one. Abstracting away from it dumbs down drinking culture and destroys the possibility of developing a more civilised and civilising setting for alcohol in future.
Drinking guidelines should be scrapped. We should be more comfortable about the way that we drink, more searching in how we think of the relationship between booze and our everyday lives and more confident in opposing irrational and uncivilised policies. So enjoy your Christmas tipple – and cheers!
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