Labels are for bottles, not people

Beer Street and Gin Lane Gin Lane From the original design by Hogarth from The Works of Hogarth published London 1833

One for the road

Is telling us we’re “binge drinkers” the best way to tackle damaging drinking?

According to research by University College London, published today in The European Journal of Public Health (and reported in The Independent),  we’re “a nation of secret boozers” and we’re telling fibs when someone comes round with a clipboard to ask how much we’re putting away.

Apparently, self-reported alcohol consumption only accounts for between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of sales.  When this under-reporting is factored in, the study suggests around half of all English men and women can be classified as “binge drinkers”.

Nobody denies that alcohol is a huge problem that can wreck lives.  There’s a growing awareness that even what we consider moderate drinking may affect our health.

But the fact that people understate their drinking suggests we’re already feeling guilty about how much we drink.  Does labelling someone a “binge drinker” who enjoys a glass of wine with dinner every night – and a few more at the weekend – really going to help them cut down ?  Is shame a good tactic in (communicating) public health policy?

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5 Responses to Labels are for bottles, not people

  1. “binge”’s a horrible, and yet very serviceable word when we take quiet inventory on ourselves. the tricky thing with alcohol is you can get right down in the mud with it in a very civilised fashion,and the word “binge” blows the cover on that.

    you are on to something with this *shame* business though..i do think that whatever our vices,we’d pace ourselves better,and be less emotionally invested in them if we felt the world around us was okay with us making our own choices.

    a by product of shame is it’s own visceral sensation,that’s hardly ever explored in the main.

  2. David says:

    It is indeed a serviceable word… tho 22 units (i.e. 3 bottles of wine a week!) is not going to be many real and sensible person’s idea of a binge.

    “shame” is very powerful… and it could be a useful social control, as a kind of inner policeman… but it’s so powerful , and been so abused, that I hesitate to offer it as way to achieve anything positive.

    a few years ago Jenny McCartney did a great piece about “shame” in the Sunday Telegraph… and how it could perhaps be a positive thing… and how the phrase “shame on you!” once might have had force and value in enforcing healthy social norms… She expressed it so well – and with nuance and empathy – I wish I could find it.

    • shame has the potential to cause chaos, a whole lot more than control..quiet private inventory,which is not the same thing, is the only way towards balance. shame taps into our own self defeating propensity for reverse psychology.
      binge,as most will robustly perceive the term,is simply fast excessive drinking…a shock to the system, an urgent need to reach an altered state.

  3. David says:

    On binge: specifically, an out of control / out of mind state… with no positive implications I can see (though one might tell oneself after that the experience was in some way necessary / cathartic, etc?)

    • i think we tell ourselves AT THE TIME,it’s for catharsis,but less so afterwards…
      the thing is, we will all occasionally binge or do other things that aren’t good for the body,but are somehow a temporary coping mechanism.we’re all on our way to the grave anyway, where brownie points for healthy living will be quite useless,but the trouble is,for now we want to live[most of the time],and we need to know what we’re doing,and words like ‘binge’ become useful during our private moment of self assessment,IF we are in fact bingeing.
      what worries me is the over use of that word…that three bottles of wine over the course of a week you mentioned..that’s not binge drinking,and if they call it such ,it’ll just confuse people,when perhaps three bottles of wine every week over a period of a decade,might be harmful to someone of a certain constitution..i guess what we’re talking about here is the power and proper use of language. they’re probably not using shame as a tactic…they’re probably just being heavy handed and incompetent,where shame is the unwitting outcome.

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