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Soapbox: Answering the anti-alcohol lobby

Published:  09 May, 2024

Andrew Catchpole argues that the trade needs to take a firmer stance against the growing anti-alcohol lobby.

Times have changed. When it comes to alcohol and health, many drinkers have a more enlightened and moderate approach, with a trend to quality over quantity seemingly now embedded. This, though, is set against the backdrop of a shrinking wine sector, with ever more forceful pronouncements discouraging even moderate drinking, to the dismay of an industry that overwhelmingly takes a responsible approach to its trade.

As Tim Atkin MW highlighted in the last issue of Harpers, there is a powerful and still growing anti-alcohol lobby, the various actors in which have helped persuade the World Health Organization (WHO) that there is ‘no safe limit’ of alcohol consumption. Our columnist asked where the “spirited response” is from the trade, describing its pushback as “too quiet and apologetic”.

A recent blog, ‘Nothing left to say?’ by Karen MacNeil, on the perilous state of wine writing, described the wine trade and its embedded writers as “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” while consumption plummets. Her excellent blog also cited the WHO safe-drinking limit of ‘zero’, along with factors such as the galloping success of Dry January and Sober October, which are also taking their toll.

What is most frustrating about this modern-day temperance movement is its blinkered approach to the beneficial aspects delivered by quality wines and spirits. Peer into a glass of wine and most reading this will see aspects of culture, gastronomy, agriculture, craftmanship, business, trade, travel, community, friendship, tradition and much else besides.

And, yes, alcohol. But not as an intolerable indulgence that sweeps all other facets aside. Wine is, after all, an integral part of the much-touted healthy Mediterranean diet, which is as good a place as any to begin to rebut such limited and negative perception.

The trade and its fourth estate need to better convey such stories, with more conviction, collectively and individually, to help redress the imbalance. (An imbalance, remember, that is also used to ‘justify’ rises in duty.) But perhaps the most dispiriting comment made by MacNeil is that she asked several winemakers at an event in Napa, ‘why is wine important?’. Not one had a ready answer.

Proceed With Caution

With regard to the wider drinks trade, that ‘quiet and apologetic’ response Atkin alluded to is in some ways understandable – there is a sense that caution needs to prevail. Because for the (sometimes deliberately) blinkered, that trade simply peddles alcohol. But on this point, too, the dire zero-limit pronouncements are at best questionable, if not entirely overblown.

In 2013, award-winning medical journalist Tony Edwards wrote a book, The Good News about Booze, initially inspired by his chance discovery that alcohol does not cause drinkers to put on weight. Ten years on, concerned about the ever-hardening attitude of medical authorities to drinking alcohol, Edwards has published The Very Good News About Wine, examining what he describes as “authoritative health evidence the health authorities don’t tell you”. It makes for very interesting reading.

A central premise is that medical evidence about the harms and benefits of alcohol has hardly changed over the past 50 years. What has changed is those same medical bodies’ attitude to alcohol, with recommended safe drinking limits being driven down across much of the world. And yet, across many aspects of health, moderate consumption remains good for you, with Edwards citing much medical evidence to back that up in his well-researched text.

“Most drinkers still live longer and healthier lives than teetotallers and serial drunkards,” he summarises.

However, centring the discussion solely on health is too narrow to reinvigorate interest in wine and the broader drinks world. The addictive qualities of alcohol should never be allowed to be the ‘elephant in the room’ or brushed aside. But there needs to be far more balance when it comes to presenting and even promoting the good that moderate drinking can do, for both the individual and all those back down the line to the agricultural communities where it all begins.

It’s down to all of us to reinvigorate and broaden that discussion, to push back against the zero-tolerance zealots. But also to do so by focusing on the wealth of positive narratives that can be interwoven and thus shift the centre of gravity of the ‘debate’. Because, without question, just in purely economic terms, there is a lot at stake.