Shall we meet for a drink? Ok, let’s not. Maybe we can say what we need to say, seal the deal, get through the date, face the family gathering, even read this, without alcohol.
We are so accustomed to our activities being manipulated by booze that the idea of it not being there is, well, enough to drive us to drink.
But with high streets of coffee shops, baking all over the television and more varieties of soft drink than ever, perhaps we can now finally be frank about alcohol.
At the Samaritans we talk a great deal to articulate, successful addicts; ones where a glass of wine with lunch has become two or three bottles of the stuff a day. They know the problem, have called for help. Yet social pressures keep them hooked; and fear of consequences, especially at work, keep them silent.
Employers need to treat alcohol addiction in the same way they would any other kind of illness, with sympathy and support. Many don’t. They could start by not being facilitators. A networking event or team bonding activity could be re-imagined, for instance, to simply take alcohol out of the mix. Teetotal countries manage.
We should use the changing high street to challenge a social and work culture that puts a mind-altering substance at its heart. And, to make the point again, there are plenty of highly social, successful societies where alcohol is simply banned and yet the wheels of life still turn.
I’d never suggest going to that extreme, of course. And I’m a drinker myself (gin and wine, since you ask). But we might want to get nearer that point than away from it. The advertising headwinds don’t help, but how about taking it on, cool association for cool association? A campaign built of scolding remonstration or grim statistics rarely works.
One mistaken assumption is that alcoholism is the collapsed, lost soul begging on the street. But it’s far more insidious. Alcoholism is no respecter of status, with suggestions that up to 24% of lawyers, for example, suffer alcoholism at some point in their careers. We can all spot the ‘functioning alcoholic’, too, and these are more the standard than the extreme sufferer. But they are no less damaged or damaging.
Perhaps what is not being accepted yet is that the line between a pleasure under control, and one doing the controlling can be thin, as everyone who’s engaged with a box of chocolates knows; and it can be very expensive. Alcoholics not only face physical and mental deterioration, family breakdowns and work collapses, they also cost the NHS about £3.5 billion in care costs. At any given point, some 500,000 people in the UK are struggling with alcohol dependence, a huge figure, and, if it were any other issue, one that would be viewed as a national scandal.
Critics of more control will doubtless roll out the arguments about nanny state, penalising the responsible drinker and so on. No. More constraints on how often alcohol is available and promoted is not a ban. It is to recognise in a practical way that brakes need to be put on for everyone’s sake. After all, few people seriously argue that speed limits are a restriction on car use.
So, let’s make a start. Cake and a cappuccino after work, anyone?