Thursday 17 October 2019

In drink, things are never as they seem

'The industry seeking to adopt the 'Out-of-Control' campaign actually wants something quite different'
'The industry seeking to adopt the 'Out-of-Control' campaign actually wants something quite different'
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

In Ireland, every week might be designated Alcohol Awareness Week.

Last week, we saw headlines such as "Women who drink in pregnancy more likely to be middle class", and "Secret alcoholism of retirees with too much time and money", though as usual if you drilled deep into the roots of many other stories of Paddy's misfortune in the papers last week, you would probably find that alcohol had been there or thereabouts.

But the story that perhaps best illustrated the intractable nature of our national addiction was the one about our old friend the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign, and how it had declined to support the Government's plans to introduce minimum unit pricing, a measure which tackles the availability of cheap alcohol.

The measure is also not supported by Diageo, which has contributed a million euro to the well-meaning but unbelievably ill-advised "Out-Of-Control" campaign, which in turn said it was not focussed on legislation, but on changing our attitudes, our drinking culture.

Which they may well succeed in doing, to a certain extent, but probably not in the way that they imagine.

Indeed, there is even a chance that the Stop Out-Of-Control Drinking campaign will have the opposite effect to the one desired by its figurehead Fergus Finlay, when he brought his gravitas to the movement.

Others have departed, citing reasons which perhaps should have been obvious to them in the first place - on balance, the drinks industry does not make large donations to projects which may ultimately reduce the amount of drink being sold.

And there was the perception of a strategic element, that this was a PR job on the part of the industry which would ensure a seat at the table for them whenever decisions are being made.

But even those of us who put forward these arguments, were probably understating the darker potential impact of this "Out-Of-Control" business. It is not just bullshit, it is dangerous bullshit, because in an alcoholic environment all forms of bullshit are dangerous bullshit.

For example, most of us adjudicate our own level of drinking according to what we see around us, or what our friends are doing. We hear people saying: "I can't be an alcoholic, I don't drink as much as that guy".

Our perception of what is "the norm" is of crucial importance here. So in one of those weird contradictions which are so intrinsic to the drinking game, if we get the impression that drinking in general is "out of control" then we are inclined to shift our own position upwards, as it were.

And, of course, no matter how much we raise the bar for ourselves, always it is others who are "out of control". By definition, most alcoholics do not regard themselves as alcoholics until... well, until they do, which can take a long time, and which might not happen at all.

So if Fergus Finlay was running a really clever campaign, he might consider putting out a message that we are drinking less, not more. Which would be factually accurate, by the way, with consumption of drink in general now lower than it was during the astonishing years of the boom.

That might be the headline - Less Not More - though in much smaller print it could be explained that due to something in our nature, we still manage to create a phenomenal amount of carnage out of whatever we are having.

The idea that a big slogan which says, "Stop Out-Of-Control Drinking" can persuade people to drink more than they do already, might seem counter-intuitive. But using our everyday intuition, we can take it as a basic rule of life that the great corporations of alcohol, or tobacco, or gambling are usually engaged in the process of selling more, not less, even when they are apparently urging caution, telling you that you must be "responsible".

The gambling corporations have become particularly good at this, learning from the old playbooks. All the "responsibility" seems to fall on the punter, not on the bookie who inveigles them into his world with "free bets" of the most dastardly sophistication.

And they will warn us to watch out for "when the FUN stops", with the word "FUN" so much bigger than all the other words - ah they do not miss a trick, though I sensed a slight shift in the attitude of the Boylesports supremo, interviewed by Richard Curran on RTE radio's The Business show, who said that the majority of gamblers are not addicted.

Having heard other industry spokespeople declaring that "1pc" of gamblers have a problem, "the majority" was a much more honest assessment, since that could mean in theory that 49.9pc have a problem - a bit high, perhaps, but closer to the truth than 1pc, for sure.

Anyway, when we engage with these industries we are not really looking for the truth, it's not like they're Fergus Finlay, who can still contribute something of great value here.

He can come out next week and say that he was wrong, that his understanding of these issues has been inadequate. There would be no shame in this, indeed many brilliant individuals have failed to understand the nature of this hydra-headed beast.

Not only would there be no shame in this for Fergus Finlay, it might be the best thing he has ever done.

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