|Mine's a Daiquiri|
It seems that barely a month goes by these days without it being hijacked by a charity eager to encourage us all to stop drinking.
Once upon a time, January was the month when people - normally of their own volition and not for charity – would lock up the drinks cabinet and forswear the public house to give their body a break after the excesses of the Christmas season. A very worthy and sensible ambition (though I remember lunching with an elderly politician and his nephew at The Gay Hussar one rainy January day and a cascade of abuse was directed at the nephew for having the temerity to emerge for lunch and not drink). Dry January has, of course, been adopted by charity and last year more than two million people took part, raising money for Alcohol Concern.
We are now, however, in the middle of a Dryathlon, promoted by Cancer Research, which urges us ‘to give up alcohol this September and become a Dryathlete’ after a ‘summer of overindulgence’. And after labouring through an abstemious month, one would be forgiven for desiring a snifter, but then we are being encouraged to become a ‘Soberhero’ for Macmillan Cancer Support, and remain booze free for the 31 long days of October. Australia has a Dry July campaign; I wouldn’t be surprised to see that emerge here too soon.
Now, this isn’t a criticism of these individual charities who all do tremendous and valuable work but rather a concern about the unintended consequences. Figures released by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) in August showed that 21 pubs were closing across the country every week. Supermarkets, which still continue to sell alcohol at prices so absurdly cheap it is impossible for a pub to compete, taxes on pubs and the role of pubcos are all cited as major reasons behind these closures. But these charity events do have an impact on the pub trade. The loss of two million customers for a month will inevitably hit the bottom line. One publican admitted to me it was ‘hard to quantify’ how much of a direct hit pubs took but said its impact was ‘significant’.
It is easy to forget how much of an important role the pub plays in British society. It is a home away from home, a meeting place, a community hub. An IPPR report in 2012 said:
‘One of the most important contributions pubs make to local community life is that they act as hubs for the development of social networks between local people. Our national opinion poll found that outside the home the pub scored the highest of any location as a place where people “meet and get together with others in their neighbourhood”’.
And a study by University Hospital in Basel found, unsurprisingly, in a report published this week, that a single glass of beer can make people more sociable.
The continuing loss of pubs damages the fabric of society. But, this seems to be the ambition of some anti-alcohol campaigns. One representative, from the World Cancer Research Fund, has repeatedly claimed: ‘About 24,000 cancer cases could be avoided every year in the UK if everyone stopped drinking alcohol’. Any, albeit inadvertent, damage this could cause to social cohesion - which, in itself, contributes to the health of individuals - is, it seems, ignored.
And then there is the Institute for Alcohol Studies, which claims to be an ‘independent voice on alcohol policy’, but is in fact mainly funded by the Alliance House Foundation, once known as the Temperance Federation. Four people linked to the IAS were recently among the ‘experts’ advising the government to recommend the reduction of safe weekly drinking limits for men from 21 units to 14.
Roger Protz, the editor of the Good Beer Guide, at the launch of the 2017 edition just this week, warned:
‘the restrictions urged by the medical officers are taking us on the road to Prohibition…. All the real scientific evidence shows that moderate beer drinking can contribute to a health lifestyle. We should listen to the experts – not the kill-joys of the Temperance movement.’
There can be few people who are not aware of the risks posed by the excessive consumption of alcohol, and charities should be congratulated for finding ever more innovative funding techniques in a competitive world, funding vital work. And yes, we should probably all drink less alcohol. But, I hope we have reached saturation point when it comes to month-long dry-outs; it's enough to make one turn to drink.