George Pitcher: Drink and be merry – it could be good for you

The guidelines on how many units it is safe to drink are so low that few people take any notice. George Pitcher thinks the Government should call time on them

Looking around the bars and fringe parties at the Labour conference at Blackpool this week, it’s difficult to imagine anyone, other than famous teetotallers such as Alastair Campbell and Frank Dobson, sticking to the Government’s guidelines on safe drinking.

That’s not because I’m still knocking around with the drunks of my journalistic youth – I’m now in a milieu of moderate, or even light, middle-aged drinkers. We just don’t count what the health authorities calculate as the number of safe daily units.

On a brief straw poll at Blackpool, those who drink every day at the party conferences are almost certainly exceeding the recommended limits – 21 units a week for men and 14 for women. However, these guidelines have been abandoned to discourage binge drinking among those who “banked” their units for a special event.

The Government’s recommended limits are now two to three units a day for women and three to four for men. There were Government ministers, even in the Health department, exceeding those limits daily at Blackpool. The purpose of that observation is not to suggest hypocrisy on the part of those who tell us how we should live. It is rather to note that this is very good news for the drinks manufacturers.

In much the same way that the tobacco companies would go out of business if everyone took note of the health warnings on the sides of their packets, many of the major brewers and drinks companies would go to the porcelain wall if all drinkers observed the recommended healthy limits.

It is one of the curiosities of the brewing industry that, since 1989, it has operated the Portman Group – a confederation of leading drinks companies that encourages safe drinking within the recommended limits – while at the same time marketing products vigorously to encourage increased consumption.

Like the tobacco industry, drinks companies will claim that they are in the business of encouraging brand switching and brand loyalty rather than increased consumption, while covertly hoping for increased overall market volumes.

As we gathered in Blackpool, Allied Domecq, the drinks combine that markets Harvey’s sherries, Courvoisier and Canadian Club among many others, published research from a £6m study in ten countries that claims to reveal the seven motivations for drinking.

Like many such studies, this is part science and part PR. So the motivations range from “Let loose and lively” (this is “dancing around handbags time”) to the mysterious “Pleasure without pain”, described as “drinking without going overboard”, but sounding a bit like a comment from the slippery slope.

It’s funny that Allied should describe the key to this work as “understanding the transitions that people go through during the course of an evening”. Perhaps one could go from dancing around the handbag, to “shedding the day’s baggage” (when the handbag is nicked) to “pleasure without pain” – all of which might imply a drop more than two to three units for what is, apparently, a young woman.

Funny, too, that Allied should have offered a motivation for each day of the week. Chief marketing officer Kim Manley was quoted in the Financial Times on Monday as saying that the research was to be used as a means of identifying when a consumer might be amenable to changing their order – at which point an alternative from the Allied cellar could gently be suggested.

According to Manley: “If every person in England moved to a Beefeater and tonic from a beer, I couldn’t count how big our business would be.” Manley presumably means a drinker switching their choice, within their unit allowance, from a beer to a gin. But Manley must know that it’s, well, more manly to drink beer than gin, whatever the marketing attempts to suggest otherwise – so we’re dangerously close to chaser territory.

And what about Allied organising drinks promotions at venues that it has identified as places where a quick pint is likely to turn into a vodka-fuelled party? Again, only the naive would suggest that this sounds like the territory of a couple of units per head.

The central problem here is that unit limits are set so absurdly low that many drinkers take no notice of them. This plays into the hands of cynical manufacturers, which wear a public Portman face, while serving drinks with a burly commercial arm.

If Blackpool is anything to go by – and I expect the Tories will be drowning their sorrows in Bournemouth next week – we could do with a bit of honesty in drinks marketing.

So let’s abandon the nonsense of recommending a few units that would barely wet the whistle of much of the population, while the drinks majors operate a parallel universe of pushing the stuff down our throats.

The libertarian view would be to make it clear that alcohol presents a health hazard and that a degree of abstinence is sensible. I say leave it at that. The drinks majors would then be free to market products in a free society, while concentrating their socially responsible activities on educating vulnerable 18to 24-year-olds and drink-drivers. I’d drink to that.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon


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