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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
November 30, 2009



The invention of binge drinkers

For those of us writing about the drinks industry in the mid-1990s the sudden appearance of the binge drinker was cause for scepticism. What did it mean? How do you measure it? Did it really reflect something new that was happening? Coming hard on the heels of the lager lout it was surely just another made-up media scare. On The Publican we agreed not to use the term – for a while.

But ignoring it didn’t make it go away. Binge drinking remained in the headlines, was taken up by politicians and respected academics wrote learned books with titles like Binge Britain. The drinks industry itself accepted the concept and pledged to tackle it. Local authorities introduced measures to curb it.

Only now has a serious study begun to question whether the term has any value – and it looks like we drinks trade hacks were right all along.

Writing in the current issue of Social History of Medicine a trio of academics in the alcohol field – Viginia Berridge, Rachel Herring and Betsy Thom – following up some more circumspect work they did in 2007, challenge the whole notion of binge drinking.

They point out that “binge” suddenly changed definition in the 1990s, from meaning several consecutive days of drunkenness to a relatively short heavy drinking bout over a matter of hours.

This coincided with a shift in public attention away from the older male alcoholics who would be the main protagonist in the earlier form of bingeing towards young people, and especially young women.

Somewhere along the line health concerns got mixed up with public order, and so today’s binge drinker came to be invented.

Yet it’s those older men who are still more likely to have a drink problem, and Berridge et al fear that the focus on ‘new’ binge drinking distracts from that.

Underlying this is a paradigm shift in medical understanding away from the idea that alcoholism is a disease to be treated and towards it being a problem for the whole of society. This goes along a further move within wider health policy that effectively makes individuals responsible for their own well-being (safe drinking limits are a product of this). It sounds contradictory but it’s really two sides of the same coin.

There have, of course, been real problems stemming from the high concentration of large venues on drinking circuits from the mid-1990s. Problems that in many places are now improving.

With any luck, as these issues become better managed the blame will be lifted from those young working class people who have every right to go out and enjoy themselves at the end of the week without suffering the stigma of being labelled a binge drinker.

And then we can start dealing with the real problems.

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