Despair has led to our booze culture

As the state busies itself with blaming companies for the rise in obesity, what of binge-drinking?

A measure of an alleged nanny state is the degree to which it manages to enjoin the corporate world to do the nannying on its behalf. For me, the most visible symptom of this delegation of quasi-parental responsibility is the sight of office workers smoking on the pavement. It’s not just that their habit is not tolerated in the office; it’s that they have been sent from the room for unacceptable behaviour. Their exclusion is a public humiliation, not unlike being made to stand on your chair at dinner-time at school for speaking out of turn.

This recruitment of corporates for the work of interference in personal habits is partly practical. There is only so much the Government can do through the legislature to control how people act – it needs companies to impose behavioural strictures at the local level.

But there are darker reasons, beyond the simply practical, for the Government’s social policy to be implemented at a corporate level. That way, the Government can, by implication, blame companies for unacceptable aspects of social behaviour. It is a very short step indeed from requiring companies to implement such policy to blaming the companies themselves for being the source of unacceptable behaviour. The most obvious instance of this trend is to be found in concerns over obesity, particularly the childhood variety.

A moment’s reflection demonstrates that it’s absurd to blame manufacturers and retailers of fast foods, confectionery and snacks for the spreading waistlines of our children. Availability doesn’t make a market – demand does. There wouldn’t be burgers and fizzy pop if people didn’t want them.

I know that it’s the job of the marketing professional to create demand, which is why advertising is controlled. But children grow fat through indulgence, the lack of education of both themselves and of their parents and a paucity of social aspiration.

This last deprivation contains within it a cluster of socio-economic symptoms – a lack of desire to progress, low self-esteem, little or no will to exercise or even to live. This is the mindset of the “sink estate”.

So it ill-behoves a government committed to education as a top priority and to the abolition of social exclusion to admit that these causes of poor diet and self-care are out there. Far better for companies to take the flak. This much we know. But where my argument becomes very much more complicated is on the subject of alcohol consumption. Binge-drinking has adopted the same sort of status as obesity as a modern social plague, causing a pandemic of violence, licentiousness and cirrhosis of the liver.

While no one would deny the sad propensity for alcoholism on our sink estates, the binge-drinking culture is predominantly part of our affluent society, both middle class and aspirational. These people want to be hugely drunk, in contrast to the consumer of a poor-quality diet, who doesn’t want to be obese. It follows that extreme consumers of what were once called alcopops and are now called “coolers” and “FABs” (flavoured alcoholic beverages) really are the creations of companies, rather than what we might call society.

As if to support this notion, last week broadcast regulator Ofcom somewhat humourlessly indicated that it is to crack down on advertisements that suggest a connection between alcohol and sexual prowess – a move that could signal the end of Carlsberg’s rather fine series of “Carlsberg don’t…” ads. They’re considered too close to the bone, so to speak – what a shame. Meanwhile, and more seriously, the publicly quoted leisure group Luminar is set to abolish its all-you-can-drink, fixed-price offers in pubs and clubs in response to the Government’s criticisms of such deals.

It looks as though the industry is accepting a responsibility for the new booze culture among the young, fit and relatively wealthy. In this important respect, the drunkenness issue seems to differ from the obesity issue. But I’m not so sure. I hesitate to blame everything on the Government, but even Luminar indicates that only by introducing a minimum price for alcohol for all retailers can we put an end to the binge-drinking culture. That would seem to shift the blame for drinking to excess, like obesity, back to being a societal phenomenon.

In the Sixties, it was said that the easy escapism of the drop-out, hippy culture was a consequence of living in the shadow of “the bomb”. I just wonder if, in today’s far more affluent society, our lack of credible belief systems, a hopeless “war against terror” and vacuous politics, which offer nothing more inspiring than following the US around, have played their part far more significantly than the low price and ready availability of FABs.

For the well-off, 18 to 35 age group, there may seem no alternative to getting pissed, just as for the poorly educated, teenager on the sink estate there is no alternative to getting fat.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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