Speaking at a much-publicised national conference on alcopops, Jennie Bristow uncovered the professionals' hidden agenda
A nation of addicts?
'You can't just ban alcopops - what difference will that make? Alcohol Concern has never called for a ban on alcopops.' Mary Ann McKibben, the main 'alcopops person' at Alcohol Concern, was the first to address the seminar Alcopops: New Drinks, New Dangers?, held by the Addictions Forum on 18 August. As she spoke, you could almost hear the curses and the closing of notebooks as the national media reporters prepared themselves for a wasted day. No bans, no prohibition, nothing newsworthy said at all.
Next up was Sarah Berger from Drinkline, the national alcohol helpline launched by the health ministry four years ago. 'Drinkline is not anti-alcohol, not prohibitionist, not abstinence-orientated. I'm not actually totally opposed to all alcopops: some of them are rather nice. They are not the major cause of underage drinking, or a major cause of the moral decline of youth today.' Now it was my turn to start cursing under my breath.
I looked down at the speech I had been asked to prepare in defence of alcopops. It is a moral panic, there is no evidence proving the link between alcopops and underage drinking, bans will not work.... That was the gist of the first three pages. Yet the very groups who have been most vociferous in condemning alcopops and calling for more regulation had said it for me. And the audience - the vast majority of whom were delegates from local drug and alcohol advisory groups - went along with it, smug in the knowledge that they had managed to pull off a significant con-trick which swept the media, politicians and many other sections of society along with it.
So what, I wondered, were they all doing there? Sarah Berger explained. The panic about alcopops, she said had 'given Drinkline, and others, a golden opportunity to use the media furore to talk about our own agenda'. But if a campaign against alcopops is not the real agenda of alcohol concern groups, what could that agenda possibly be?
It certainly was not anything so straightforward as dealing with a few alleged addicts. Almost every speaker called on us to put alcopops 'in context' and pay attention to 'the broader picture'. So you cannot just deal with alcopops, or young people. You have to deal with young people's role models, their parents, their education. You have to deal with underage drinking as an all-encompassing social problem. In other words, you have to deal with everybody as a potential addict, and regulate the drinking behaviour of society as a whole.
Having twigged this, I changed tack and argued that the problem with restricting the product itself was a restriction of adults' choices. There is already a law against buying alcopops under the age of 18, I said, and kids will just drink something else. Adults should have the freedom to make choices, and the restrictions on alcopops treat them like children.
Now that was controversial, but not for the reasons I had anticipated. Yes, the forum could see that kids would drink something else: as some research presented by a PhD student at the University of Glasgow showed, vodka and white cider are still the most popular drinks for teenagers, because they get you very drunk very quickly very cheaply. But the experts all wanted to dispute my apparently controversial suggestion that over-18s should be treated as adults rather than children.
When a member of the audience asked, 'what is your definition of an adult?', I have to confess to being slightly flummoxed. Does the law not make it obvious? Apparently not. After much debate, the conference agreed on a working definition of 'young people' as being the 13-25 age group. My 22 years of life experience seemed to fall away as I realised that I was part of the problem - that 'underage drinking' had suddenly come to mean anybody under 25 drinking alcohol. And, as I was reminded, one had to be very careful in assuming that adults - particularly young adults - were rational, responsible and able to make choices. After all, 50 per cent of the prison population are young men, and there are a lot of people out there who behave like children after their eighteenth birthday.
'Health is freedom!'
'But what about freedom?', I asked. How can adults have rights and freedom if they are seen as too irresponsible to buy an alcopop? And they did laugh. As Dr Lynne Friedli from the Health Education Authority advised me in the break, 'Health is the most important freedom we can have'; rights and choices are all a capitalist con, apparently, and giving them up is a small price to pay for being healthy.
But is it? Those at the Addictions Forum may admit that the concern with alcopops is a moral panic, but it has been a panic with consequences. Some shops and pubs have banned alcopops, some only sell them under the counter, and others have brought in extra rules - as discovered by my 26-year-old friend, refused some bottles of Hooch in Sainsburys until he showed his driving licence. As the alcopops industry becomes increasingly defensive, and retailers' feet get colder and colder, it will not be long before it is easier to buy cannabis on the street than it is to buy an alcopop in a supermarket.
The campaign against alcopops has now assumed a wider significance. If customers are deemed incapable of handling an alcopop, what else might retailers withdraw as 'irresponsible'? Since when have supermarkets and alcohol addiction groups had the authority to act as society's moral guardians, responsible for telling people what they can and cannot drink?
In slating the alcohol industry, Mary Ann McKibben argued that the reaction to alcopops was a slap in the face to all those who believed the public to be so 'completely stupid' as to be taken in by the claims that alcopops are not aimed at young people. At least the drinks industry trusts its customers to make decisions about what they buy. The same cannot be said for those who argue people are 'vulnerable to abuse' - a euphemism for 'completely stupid'.
Reproduced from LM issue 104, October 1997