September 2011

Caught in the Crosshair

The anti-tobacco campaign is now being retargeted on alcohol

THERE IS A curious – and ill-judged – tendency amongst many beer lovers to consider their chosen vice as somehow resistant to the attentions of the health lobby as opposed to tobacco. Even CAMRA have fallen for it. In 2004, they weakly attempted to defend pubs from the harmful effects of the smoking ban by playing right into tobacco control hands and suggesting that a diversity of outlets offering choice for all would “split the pub trade” [1]. In the end, they got their wish as all pubs were given no choice. Now, you can argue, if you like, that this has had no damaging effect on the hospitality trade (I’d heartily disagree) but it has certainly contributed to a big problem for pubs, and beer lovers, which is only now beginning to come home to roost.

In a rousing 1919 speech following the ratification of Prohibition in the US, “anti-saloon” campaigner Billy Sunday declared “Prohibition is won, now for tobacco!” [2] Because all the while campaigners for the prohibition of alcohol were tied up with that issue, their assault on smoking was left on the back burner. Once the war against alcohol was completed, resources were freed up to attack tobacco, employing the same personnel and moral pleading which was so successful against booze.

Nothing has changed from those days. Just as righteous crusaders tackled both substances around a century ago, so do their modern day equivalents act the same now. ASH have taken to coaching anti-alcohol campaigners on how to achieve the same demonisation of alcohol as has happened with tobacco [3], and the methodology is lifted from the successful anti-smoking playbook. Professor David Nutt was the first to suggest that “there is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol consumption” [4], a position which is increasingly becoming the default one. The Cancer Council of Australia certainly thinks that way, a couple of months ago advocating that total abstinence should be the only public health policy. In a chilling reminder of post-prohibition triumphalism in the US, the Australian press reported the campaign as “Cigs war won: now cancer campaigners set their sights on beer” [5].

CAMRA keeps ploughing this furrow, as in August last year where they tried to claim some form of high ground by declaring that “beer can supplement a healthy lifestyle if consumed in a responsible manner” [6], but this approach is doomed if they think that playing in public health’s self-constructed playground is going to do anything but invite ridicule. ‘No safe level’ leaves no wriggle room whatsoever, and the protestation that beer is somehow not that bad will be thrown back at them by the health lobby as an admission of guilt. Which it is.

No. The best form of defence, as always, is attack. And instead of back-sliding when the smoking in pubs debate was taking place, CAMRA would have been better served standing firm and resisting all legislation on tobacco. While that buffer was still in place, CAMRA were insulated against the worst excesses of an insatiable health lobby. Without it, resources are being withdrawn from tobacco in favour of new targets [7], and those who enjoy a pint or two are now squarely in the crosshair.


[2] Smoke: A Global History of Smoking (Sander L. Gilman and Zhou Xun)






(This is a special guest column by Top 50 political blogger Dick Puddlecote)


  1. Don’t forget food and non-alcoholic drinks.

    In 2006 New York City schools banned “whole” milk because it contains too much fat. Children can only have “low” fat or skim milk; in some schools, chocolate milk (low fat, of course) once a week. (Like out of a million children in the school system, there isn’t one skinny kid who could use a little extra fat.) And it’s not just milk. "We got rid of white bread; you'll never see any white bread in our schools — it's all whole-wheat bread, frankfurter buns, hamburger buns," said Martin Oestreicher, the executive director of school support services who oversees school food. (NY Times 2/2/06)

    I had a recent knock on my door from a high school student selling “candy” to finance extra-curricular activities. The school won’t allow (allow!) the kids (high school kids!) to sell chocolate. I bought a few granola bars because only “healthy” choices were offered.

    Taxing soda? Limiting the number of fast food restaurants in a neighborhood? It’s all on the agenda.

    Mike F.

  2. This appears to have a far higher standard of English than usual.

  3. From Dave Atherton.

    As the Royal College of Physicians wrote in 2008. So no "safe level of drinking."

    "The ‘passive effects' of alcohol misuse are catastrophic - rape, sexual assault, domestic and other violence, drunk driving and street disorder - alcohol affects thousands more innocent victims than passive smoking."

  4. Wonder if they will take this threat seriously?

    In the meantime, is it possible to draw attention to AWT's e-petition to see if any of the 7000 subscribers might sign it?

  5. This comment by IanB over at Dick's place is worth reproducing here:

    Be interesting to see how this works out, because if you do a sociological analysis on the IanB Scale, a scale of Puritanism which I invented several seconds ago, CAMRA are a heavily puritan social formation. Puritans come in a number of guises, and can, on the surface seem to be promoting something notionally libertine, such as imbibing an intoxicant. Nudists are another example of a puritan formation that you have to look more closely at to see it. Try bumming a fag in a nudist camp and see the reaction you get.

    The thing about the average CAMRAman is that he's after this *pure* unadulterated ale experience; ale is healthful and nourishing and natural, not like artifical, chemical, adulterated keg beer. Hence the general CAMRAman support for the smoking ban; the solitary purpose of a pub is to supply healthful nourishing ale, so tobacco smoke is an unnecessary and distracting impurity in the experience. On the IanB scale, they score a 10, I'm afraid.

    As a result, they see themselves as on the side of the angels and are entirely unable to understand what's heading their way.


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