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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

May 9, 2011



Keeping the binge drinking myth alive

Of course, nobodyís going to take any notice of it because itís sponsored by SAB Miller. A better reason to dismiss the new binge drinking study from think-tank Demos, however, might be that the authors canít spell Ďlicensedí. But Iíll grit my teeth and ignore that.

Turns out itís worth a read. Its greatest strength is that it recognises thereís a difference between the binge drinking officially defined as twice the recommended limit in a session and binge drinking in its more emotional, pejorative, bandied-about sense. The former is in decline while the latter, the authors argue, is growing or static and therefore constitutes an urgent problem to be addressed.

Itís at this point the report gets into difficulties. While half-acknowledging binge drinking (Iíll use the term only in its second sense here on) is a media invention with no scientific basis it believes that it is still, somehow, a measurable, real phenomenon.

Yet binge drinking, if it is anything, is a chimera produced by shining bright lights on our high streets and town centres and magnifying the picture through the usual feedback loop between media hysteria and political knee-jerking.

There are real problems in there but lumping them under a binge drinking headline is no help at all.

To be fair, the report does recognise the complexities and makes some good points, in particular drawing attention to recent successes in the management of the night-time economy (NTE).

But in calling for tougher law enforcement Ė which is not what most of these schemes have been about Ė it joins the moral panic that it goes some way to criticising. It complains, for instance, that the enforcement of laws against public drunkenness have declined ďdespite a growth in public drunkenness and more powers available to deal with itĒ.

It could equally well be, though, that public drunkenness has actually been falling along with alcohol consumption, and that its apparent increase is down to its concentration in certain drinking circuits convenient for the media spotlight.

And itís also the case that the latest NTE management strategies look to measures other than nicking drunks, now frequently seen as an outmoded last resort.

Interestingly, the flaws in this study do indeed stem from its drinks industry sponsorship. The industry is right to be sceptical about total consumption policies but wrong to try to deflect attention towards Ďbinge drinkingí which Demos calls ďa particular subset of alcohol misuseĒ.

In a strange twist, itís now the drinks industry that has an interest in sustaining the binge drinking myth.

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