Friday, 13 May 2016

"A Safely Controlled Drinking Environment?"

 One of the arguments put forward by organisations representing the licensed trade, is that Pubs provide a regulated and controlled drinking environment, making them safe and enjoyable places to visit and socialise with like-minded people. Few would disagree with this viewpoint, and as someone who obviously enjoys a few pints in a pub, I would be the last to argue against the continuance of this great British institution.

The main protagonists of this point of view are the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), the Campaign for Real Ale and the Morning Advertiser. Now I fully understand where the BBPA and the MA are coming from, as both organisations represent the pub trade, and CAMRA’s commitment to the great British pub is based on the fact that apart from a few specialised outlets, pubs are the only places where drinkers can enjoy a pint of “real ale.”

I have no problem with the position taken by these organisations, and obviously wish them every success. Pubs are an important part of our national heritage, and need nurturing, especially when viewed against the background of an increasingly powerful anti-alcohol lobby, made up of health officials, certain members of the medical profession and fake, government-funded charities, such as Alcohol Concern.

However, what I do take exception to is organisations, whose stated aim is to look after the interests of the licensed trade, being somewhat disingenuous by contrasting the “safely controlled” drinking which takes place in a pub, with drinking at home. They claim that consumption of alcohol anywhere apart from on licensed premises is dangerous, as it takes place in an un-controlled environment. The implication is that without the benevolent supervision of the friendly publican, and the atmosphere engendered by his/her welcoming pub/bar, people will drink to excess with all the associated social and health problems this brings.

This comes across as a rather patronising “nanny knows best” type of attitude, as it is based on the premise that people have no self control and need someone watching over them, just to make sure they don’t have “one over the eight”! It is also a very dangerous and ultimately futile argument to put across, as it plays straight into the hands of the anti-alcohol brigade, at a time when the drinks trade should be maintaining a united front.

Let’s take a closer look at both the off and the on trade – people who prefer a drink at home versus those who prefer a few pints, in the company of others, down at their local boozer. These days, I fall into the former category, as I drink at home on far more occasions than I do in a pub. However, I tend to drink far less over the course of an evening at home, than I would during a comparable evening in the pub. It is also pretty rare for me to have more than one 500ml bottle of beer during the course of an evening; especially during the week.

Yet if the BBPA, CAMRA and the MA are to be believed, the home does not provide a “controlled environment” for the consumption of alcohol, and therefore I am placing myself in mortal danger. I would say to them, “How on earth do you know what goes on in peoples’ private houses? You haven’t been round to mine to check how safe and controlled it is. And how can you possibly assess whether I am in danger of drinking myself to death, if you aren’t there watching over me!”

Actually, there are quite a few times when I’ve been in a pub, in the company of people, who quite obviously have drunk more than is good for them. Hand on heart I have never seen any of them refused service, because of the amount they have already consumed. I have never seen any member of the licensed trade suggesting that perhaps they have had one too many, and that might it not be a good idea if they either slowed down, or switched to soft drinks? Surely, if pubs were the safe, supervised premises their supporters claim them to be, these sorts of things would happen.

I must emphasise here that I am not talking about people who are rude, aggressive, unsteady on their feet or slurring their speech; but people in whose company I have spent the day and witnessed them drinking considerably more than me. Having said that, I haven’t seen that many people who fall into leery, staggering or talking b*ll*cks category refused a drink either. I therefore take issue with the claim of the pub providing a supervised drinking environment.

A well-managed pub will, of course, largely police itself, and a firm indication from the licensee that bad or drunken behaviour will not be tolerated, is often all that is needed. Again, in a properly run establishment, the pub regulars will assist the licensee in ensuring people behave in a proper manner, by acting as additional eyes and ears, so that any trouble can be swiftly nipped in the bud, before it has a chance to get out of hand. However, we are not talking about stopping fights breaking out, but providing a “safely controlled” drinking environment.

I therefore get rather cross when I see pubs being held up as paragons of virtue, whilst home drinking is regarded as the devil’s work. I know pubs are under threat, as never before, but to blame the off-trade for their demise I like attempting to treat the symptoms, rather than the root cause.

There are many reasons why people choose to drink at home, rather than in the pub, and I accept that whilst price does play a significant role, it is just one factor amongst a whole host of other socio and demographical considerations to be taken into account. There are many other forms of entertainment and ways of spending one’s leisure time, which are distraction enough to keep an increasingly large proportion of the population out of the pub; and there is also the problem that many pubs fail to offer the things which people are actually looking for.

Fuggles "pop-up" bar
Not everyone wants wall to wall TV and Sky Sports; neither do they want karaoke, fancy dress evenings or quiz nights The fact the majority of pubs in the town I live in, all offer these things in varying degrees, is the main factor why I do most of my drinking at home. Many Tonbridge townsfolk feel the same; as demonstrated by the success of the recent “pop-ups” run by Fuggles and Sankey’s in the town’s Old Fire Station. These events saw dozens of people out enjoying decent food and drink, in a pleasant, non-threatening environment, where they could actually talk to each other without having their eardrums assaulted by the latest gansta (c)rap being blasted out at 90 decibels!

I want pubs to survive; after all I invested enough time, and money, in them in the past, and I am keen that they continue to thrive so that future generations can enjoy them. Pubs have to evolve though, and they have to up their game. They need to remain relevant to both today’s drinkers, as well as tomorrow’s.  There are examples aplenty out there of pubs which are doing exactly this and are thriving. These establishments are
Tonbridge Old Fire Station
surely showing the way for others to follow, so look beyond the same old tired formula, do your research properly, be innovative and be bold. Whatever you do, don’t blame the decline of the on-trade on those people who drink at home. Instead examine ways in which you can attract these people back to your pub.

The BBPA and the MA,  are wrong in their condemnation of  drinking at home, and  CAMRA too, really should know better. To claim that people’s homes provide an unsafe environment, in which to enjoy a few glasses of beer, is patent nonsense and it is time this myth was debunked once and for all. If this article goes just a little way towards achieving this, then it will have done its job.
Change of Title
I wasn't 100% happy with the original title of this post (Drinking at Home), especially as the article is about the contrast between drinking in a home environment and enjoying a few bevvies in the local pub. I also wanted to highlight the "holier than thou" stance being taken by certain organisations, including CAMRA, whereby the pub is portrayed as a place of virtue, whilst cracking open a few bottles at home, is the start of the slippery slope to complete moral degradation and total ruin!


Curmudgeon said...

Interesting that you reach pretty much exactly the same conclusions as I did in this post from a couple of years ago :-) I have actually slated a cut-down version of that blogpost to appear in my Opening Times column for July.

Of course pubs are great and we both strongly support them, but there's nothing inherently wrong with drinking at home, and in practice much of the bad side of drinking occurs in the on-trade. It's unhelpful and divisive special pleading.

Nick said...

Interesting stuff. One thing that comes to mind as an American, specifically of the raised-in-Minnesconsin variety, is the idea that the pub is a safer, more moral place to drink than the home. Where and when I grew up (things may have changed since the 80's), bars (there were no "pubs" in Minnesconsin in the British sense, except the odd Irish or English import) were dens of iniquity where nothing good can happen.

Mothers and wives would tut and shake their heads on hearing that guys were "going out to the bars this weekend".

Doubt I'll ever fully be able to shake that old programming out of my head.

Nick said...

And are you headed Franconia-way sometime soon? Not sure when I'll be back in Kentia.

Curmudgeon said...

@Nick - that kind of attitude used to be commonplace in the UK, although never to the same extent as the USA. Many respectable people wouldn't even contemplate visiting pubs.

As I say of the anti-drink lobby in the post I linked to, "It wouldn’t surprise me if their equivalents of fifty years ago had been advocating a move to more at-home drinking with the family and with meals, as opposed to men boozing together in the pub, as a way of encouraging a more responsible approach."

And it's now going backwards again. As I said here, "Responsible, employed people in relationships just don’t go to the pub for a casual drink any more."

Paul Bailey said...

I followed the link back to your 2014 post, Mudge and noticed that I commented on it at the time. We are both making similar points about the slight whiff of hypocrisy from the pub trade, and its representatives, especially the claim about the “controlled drinking environment”. You mentioned the regulars, obviously the worse for drink on a Friday or Saturday night, but as long as they’re not causing trouble, the staff carry on serving them.

The same applies to a group of well-behaved CAMRA members on a pub crawl, all with a fair number of pints under their belts. Again, as long as there’s no trouble they will be served. As you said in your post, “Neither on- nor off-trade has a unique claim to the moral high ground,” and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise.

We have both pointed out the need to maintain a united front against the increasingly powerful anti-alcohol lobby, who are gradually tightening their grip on the nation’s drinking habits and yet, at the recent “CAMRA Revitalisation Meeting “ I attended, the threat posed by this group was passed over, due to lack of time. (It seems people would rather discuss the merits, or otherwise, of “cask breathers”, rather than face up to the challenges facing the drinks industry today.)

@Nick, Curmudgeon has already alluded to the attitude which many in the UK once had towards pubs. I can remember our Deputy Headmaster referring to them as “Dens of iniquity and inebriation”. Mind you he was also a Methodist lay-preacher, but my own mother was never keen on my drinking and pub-going either.

I take it the “Bible-belt” extends up into Minnesota and Wisconsin? It’s interesting to see the ambivalent attitude towards drink which many US (and Canadian) States adopt. Drinking is strictly forbidden below the age of 21, but you can marry or fight for your country!

I very much regret I will not be coming to Franken at the beginning of next month, as originally proposed. The Pet Trade Fair in Nürnberg, and the resultant high hotel room rates, put paid to my plan to bring a group of beer enthusiasts over for Frankenfest, and whilst we did look at Bamberg, as an alternative, there were too many people involved in the end, and it all got a bit out of hand.

I am currently without a passport anyway, as I have sent it off for renewal. The lad and I are thinking of coming to Bavaria in the autumn. Eight years ago we had a really enjoyable stay in Regensburg, and we fancy re-visiting. I keep reading good things about Spitalbräu, and I really love their beer garden overlooking the Danube.

Let me know though, if you are coming over to Kent, as it would be good to meet up.

Nick said...

Things in Minnesconsin (Upper Flatlandia as I also call it) are different to the Bible Belt. Hard drinking and other sin is expected in the Lutheran- & Catholic-informed former, if also with subsequent confession and remorse, but not in the Baptist latter. Though I have almost no experience with drinking in the Bibble Belt, thankfully.

Except last week's trip to South Carolina and Tennessee. Turns out where my dad lives, on the edge of the city of Greenville SC, is also on the edge of a "dry Sunday" county. We happened to go for dinner on the Sunday in a place outside the city, in the county. And so we were denied any alcoholic beverage to accompany my meal. That was odd.

RedNev said...

I don't think we need to get too agitated about this phenomenon: it is in the nature of any business to talk up the benefits of its products or services. Advertising, spin, call it what you like, but that's all it is.

The one aspect of the 'controlled environment' argument that I would agree with can be summarised by something that I wrote on my own blog in 2012:

Under age drinkers used to go into a pub and behave themselves because they knew that if they didn’t, they’d draw attention to themselves and get thrown out. So now they get cheap supermarket booze and drink at each other’s homes or in the park, and it’s not ordinary beer: it’s strong cider, lager or cheap vodka. And in an unsupervised environment, they don’t learn how to behave when drinking. The consequence is that binge drinking develops at an early age without social controls, resulting in bad behaviour. So the rigid enforcement of a law to prevent under age drinking has probably had quite the opposite effect.

Curmudgeon said...

@Nev - yes, that's exactly where it does apply, in socialising young drinkers and, as you say, the strict application of the underage drinking law has increasingly prevented it from happening. That is a point made in the blogpost of mine that I linked to.

Paul Bailey said...

Nick, until fairly recently, parts of Wales were “dry” on Sundays, and pubs in these areas were not allowed to open. Members clubs were permitted to serve alcohol, as were hotels, but only to residents. This draconian state of affairs was the result of the Sunday Closing (Wales) Act 1881. Similar legislation was proposed for England by the anti-drink Liberal government of the time, but was rejected by Parliament.

The Licensing Act 1961, which allowed local authorities in Wales to hold polls of their residents on the continuation of the ban, effectively killed the legislation, although it took time for all areas of the Principality to vote in favour. Dwyfor in north west Wales, was the last area where the ban still applied; but in 1996, changes to local government boundaries resulted in the removal of the last “dry” area.

Paul Bailey said...

RedNev and Mudge, you are both right about how licensees used to turn a blind eye to underage drinkers; as long as they behaved themselves. This was my first experience of drinking in pubs, and I’m sure you both could describe similar memories.

The main thrust of my argument was organisations such as the BBPA and CAMRA presenting a “holier than thou” stance when it comes to pubs, whilst demonising those who, for whatever reason, chose to drink at home.

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