Forget drinking by numbers – enjoy your Christmas tipple!

Sarah Boyes

107147693 300x197 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!

The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Sarah Boyes is a freelance writer and assistant editor of Culture Wars. She is a member of the Manifesto Club.

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  • AJS1959

    As long as I don’t hurt any one then what I drink , how much I drink is MY concern and none of anyone else’s business. I’ll choose and live with any consequences

  • Alastair Stirling

    If vbird has half a bottle of wine a day everyday, the total number of units consumed per week would be about the same as the 21 years old who drunk a bottle of vodka on a Saturday night, but then didn’t drink at all until the next Saturday. Maybe that was vbird’s point regarding units?

  • lecce

    100 units per week does NOT equal alcoholic. It reveals other points to consider – you have money, you have time , you are a committed drinker from choice. For a period covering 15 years I drank approx 150 – 175 units p.w. I then reduced my drinking regime to zero units. No rehab, no A.A. no Turning Point. 
      Many people confuse drinking over 21/28 units – men , 14/21 units women as “alki”. This is nonsense. Has anyone noticed that as drink/smoking ads have been reduced/banned, the number of ads to gamble have gone through the roof.

  • lecce

    I agree 100% with your post.

  • Tom Staite

    Some good food for thought in this article.

    Here’s my thoughts upon our drinking culture, the notion of ‘excess’, and a proposed remedy:

    I think we should hike taxes on the sale of alcohol, especially strong drinks and liquors, in supermarkets and spend that revenue directly back into lowering the prices of moderate strength beers, ales and wine sold in pubs. The degeneration of our drinking culture is showing dire effects, and the sources are easily identifiable.

    The young are turning away from civilised drinking (moderate strength drinks, and in socially governed public places) firstly because it is expensive. Secondly, the possibility of the underage being initiated into drinking habits, and introduced to the concept of alcohol as a normal part of adult life by elders and older peers, is dangerous because of fierce and laws affecting both consumer and landlord.  Thirdly, because drinking moderate strength beer and ale, a culture which celebrates gastronomic diversity as well as our own historic heritage, is dying- the evidence of this is the shocking scenes remarked upon by all travellers to our country of friday and saturday nights in all our major cities.

    One possible effect of encouragement to pubs is a greater sense of local identity, in a non-churchgoing and largely festival-less country, and also consumption of local produce, creating a few more jobs in bars and breweries during our present hard times. Another could be of a drinking culture more moderated by our own social standards rather than any unit system imposed by the government. Finally, our shoddy reputation for excess will be cleaned up a bit when it is moved off the streets and town centres, and into the pubs and bars around the table.

    the danger is that the present climate is hostile to our ‘pub culture’ and the possible merits (which I believe are there) which it contains, whilst at the same time encouraging the drinking of the cheapest strongest available, outside in cold weather or in our most public spaces, perhaps both, or privately in houses and kitchens, where the boundaries for socially acceptable and drunken behaviour largely defined by the activities of their own like-minded consumers, with the absence of older role models. Then consider that bars and pubs and jobs are closing at a rapid rate, the incidents or scandals raised in the press by excessive drinking or degenerate youths seemingly rising- the logic is not right, I can’t see who is benefitting, and yet drinking forms an irremovable part in social habits and so what constitutes life in Britain.

    I am no policy maker, but to me the issue has a wider significance than is commonly considered, and warrants closer attention: the shaping of today affects the outcome of the future.

    thanks for reading, and enjoy your tipple


  • David Ippolito

    Far too much so … it’s not that black and white

  • xcentricdave

    and when someone demontrates that they cannot behave as a responsible adult, drinks to excess and harms themselves and others? Remove the priviledge? Withdraw free healthcare for self inflicted harm? Make them pay in full for any harm done to others?

    I don’t pretend that any of these sanctions are likely given alcholol’s central place in society

    One of the difficulties with alcohol is that it can make normally responsible adults less responsible and less able to make good decisions.

  • Jasonsmith17

    Dave – are you saying because people drink to excess it’s fine to lie to them and treat them like children? 
    “less able to make good decisions” suggests that you think there is always a right thing to do in a given situation – that maybe the case when you’re talking about yourself. Others will have different ‘right’ things to do/ways to behave. It’s called life.

  • xcentricdave

    @Jasonsmith17:disqus  - couldn’t reply to your comment for some reason…
    I suppose I have a view (which is personal I concede) that violent and antisocial behaviour following drinking is unnecessary and that everyone would be happier were it not to happen; both victim and perpetrator suffer in some way or another. 

    As to right and wrong; once laws have been broken we as a society have decided that is wrong. When people are killed by a drunk driver, that is wrong in my world. I agree that in the grey area between killing people and ‘a bit of drunken fun’ we all have to follow our own moral code. That, as you say, is life; but a life in which I think some people could be happier if they drank less… 

    Oh and do alcohol unit and limits make any difference. I don’t think so. It can’t be enforced and people pretty much ignore them. 

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