The war on alcohol: new puritanism or healthy sobriety?

Saturday 30 October, 5.15pm until 6.30pm, Henry Moore Gallery

Alcohol is so rooted in Western culture that it has a place at almost every social event, from weddings and dinner parties to art openings and sporting occasions. As Kingsley Amis once wrote, ‘conversation, hilarity and drink are connected in a profoundly human, peculiarly intimate way’. Yet today alcohol is more likely to be discussed in terms of its damaging effects on health, its association with domestic violence and other criminal activity. It has been estimated that drink is a factor in 15% of drownings, 65% of suicides and 40% of domestic abuse. It is also allegedly responsible for 17 million lost working days a year, worth about £20bn to the economy. Do the social pleasures of drinking still outweigh the disasters that may occur if we have one, or ten, too many?

Cheap alcohol has been blamed for encouraging a culture of binge drinking, and the authorities are cracking down on supermarket deals and nightclub offers. Whole areas of many towns and cities have been designated ‘no drinking zones’, with the police empowered to confiscate alcohol without having to give a reason. And it has become routine for adults well over 18 to be asked for ID when buying drink. So are we seeing a ‘denormalisation’ of alcohol, a shift from seeing alcohol as part of everyday life to a dangerous drug to be approached with caution? Earlier this year, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence issued new guidelines urging GPs to quiz patients routinely about their drinking habits. Are these welcome changes, or is there something to be said for a ‘drinking culture’?

Scientists led by David Nutt at Imperial College are developing synthetic alcohol, which creates the sensation of feeling a little tipsy without the associated health risks. Do we need such an alternative to alcohol? Or does the idea of consequence-free drinking miss the point: is the potency of alcohol, and the fact that its use has traditionally been limited to adults, actually part of the appeal? Perhaps changing attitudes to drink reflect changing attitudes to adulthood. Are we becoming more enlightened, or more puritanical? Are we witnessing the rise of a new prohibitionist mentality in the UK, or simply a sensible response to a better understanding of the dangers of drink?

Listen to session audio:


Professor Virginia Berridge
director, Centre for History in Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
writer on medicine and politics; author, The Tyranny of Health

Professor Mike Kelly
director, Centre of Public Health Excellence, National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE)

Kristin Wolfe
head of alcohol policy, SABMiller

Suzy Dean
freelance writer; blogger, Free Society

Produced by
Suzy Dean freelance writer; blogger, Free Society
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