Despite alcohol consumption and binge drinking continuing to fall, we're still being warned that we drink too much. Coverage of the latest research reveals that we're talking at cross-purposes.
When I wrote my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, I made a big deal about binge drinking in the UK compared to other countries. Despite having listed up to 200 words to describe drunkenness in Man Walks into a Pub, it struck me that we didn't have a good word to describe the state between drunkenness and sobriety.
For Three Sheets I travelled through fourteen different countries exploring beer drinking culture. In Spain, I found the word chispa - literally translated as 'spark'. They use it to describe the state when you've had a few drinks and the world is suffused with a warm glow. You probably wouldn't drive a car or operate heavy machinery, but it would be pushing it to say that you're pissed. Social inhibitions have eroded, and you're probably a bit more animated, a bit more talkative. But you're not in a state where you would do anything you regret, or anything you can't remember. Your speech isn't slurred and you can still walk straight. You just feel nicer.
In Germany, they have a word Gemütlichkeit, which translates most closely as 'cosiness', and is used to describe a similar state. In Denmark it's hygge. Since then, I've discovered the same concept in various other countries.
The best equivalents we have in English are 'merry' or 'tipsy', which sound like they only apply to your aunt at a wedding. The Americans say 'buzzed', or they might talk about 'getting a buzz on', but this is imprecise and doesn't exclude outright drunkenness. So we usually end up describing this state by saying that we got 'a little bit pissed.'
This is hopelessly misleading and inadequate. Talk to the Spanish, and they make a clear distinction between chispa and drunkenness. As in, 'I reach chispa two or three times a week, but I haven't been drunk since I was eighteen.' It's a separate state, a specifically different level of intoxication, just as different from outright drunkenness as it is from sobriety. Whereas we in the UK are on a sliding scale - as soon as we're not completely sober, we're a little bit drunk, with the implication that we're inevitably heading further along the spectrum.
I'm reminded of this by the dangerous language around new research released by a group led by the University of Sheffield into British drinking habits.
It claims that the British are rejecting advice on 'binge drinking' guidelines because trying to measure it in units has no relation to how we actually drink.
Fair enough, I can relate to that.
It finds that most of us don't drink every day (so why the daily guidelines?) but that when we do fancy a drink, we drink a fair bit. So now, there are calls for telling us "how much we can safely binge drink on a Saturday night,"
And this is where researchers and reporters queue up to show how little they understand about drinking.
Lead Researcher Dr John Holmes, from the University of Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, says, “What we found is that the guidelines at the moment kind of assume that people drink a bit too much, very often. In fact we were finding people saying’ I don’t drink too often but when I go out I do want to get a bit drunk.” He then goes on to argue that this is different from the European drinking culture of "little and often."
I'm not going to claim that there's no such thing as a northern European binge drinking culture. But what's being implied here is that this binge culture is the norm. And here's where the use of language is shockingly, dangerously, misleading.
People saying they want to go out and get "a little bit drunk" is now being portrayed as the same as "binge drinking."
I'd argue that people wanting to get "a little bit drunk" is them wanting to drink enough to feel the effects of alcohol (which for the vast majority, means more than the current daily guidelines). I would suggest that this is exactly the same as chispa, the Mediterranean culture that is supposedly so different from ours.
This research gets some things right, in that it is genuinely trying to understand the reasons people drink - and drink to excess. The reporting of the research doesn't seem to be intentionally alarmist, and I haven't seen much in the way of trying to twist it to suggest that we're drinking ourselves to death.
But by equating "a bit drunk" with "binge drinking", and by making no distinction between tipsiness, buzz, mild intoxication, whatever you want to call it, and the big occasions when we get wasted, it suggests a completely inaccurate picture of British drinking habits.
Most people I know go out and occasionally get pissed. Yes, there's some bravado about it. Yes, we might have an irresponsible cheerfulness about it. But I'd argue that most British people, most of the time, drink enough to feel a buzz, but not enough to wake up with a stinking hangover the next morning. And increasingly, these drinking occasions happen less often.
Alcohol is an intoxicating drug. That's one of the main reasons we drink it (not the only reason mind). We drink it to feel an effect. And as a society, we currently have a real problem with that - an automatic assumption that if we want to change our brain chemistry with the use of drugs, that is some kind of moral failing, even a crime. The source of our problem around drink policy is that we're scared to admit this - alcohol advertising is banned from suggestion that drink can be a factor in enhancing social occasions, when that is the main reason we have it at social occasions, because it DOES.
And so we get the sheer daftness of home secretary Theresa May trying to ban 'legal highs' by bringing forward a bill for the outright prohibition of any and all psychoactive substances, which then makes specific exemptions for those in common use, such as alcohol, coffee, and I presume, chocolate, pro plus tablets, snuff, paracetomol, Berocca, and anything else that the ingestion of which changes people's moods, depending on how the government is feeling.
Every human society, at every stage of human history, has used psychoactive substances to change brain chemistry and mood. In stable societies with proper guidelines around their use, these mood changes enhance our lives and bring us closer together. When societies are unstable and uncertain, and when the controls around these substances are unfit (which is just as likely to mean that they are over-controlled rather than not controlled enough, driving usage underground, criminalising and deregulating supply) they are more likely to cause harm.
It is not a moral failing, nor is it objectively dangerous, to seek to change our brains with the use of intoxicating substances. It is dangerous to over-indulge.
But to drink enough to feel an effect, to get "a bit drunk", which is the best translation of chispa we have, is NOT the same as binge drinking. To suggest that it is is to overwhelmingly misunderstand what drinking is all about.
Drinking to get drunk, as we commonly understand it, is to seek oblivion through drink - to blot out the end of a relationship or a terrible, stressful job. To drink to get "a bit drunk" is to relax, chill out, get closer to people and form social bonds. It is to heighten life experience, not blot it out. Crucially, it's about the pattern of drinking, the context of drinking, the speed of drinking, and what you're drinking, at least as much as it is about the amount you drink. How else do you explain the fact that middle class people drink more than poor working class people, but poor working class people are more likely to suffer from alcohol related harm than middle class people?
Until those influencing government policy understand this, we haven't got a hope of there being any sensible advice on how much it is safe to drink.