DSN Blog: Drink in the Time of Corona

Many thanks to those who contributed to our Blog: Drinking in the Time of Corona. Our call for blog posts has now closed. We now encourage members who wish to blog to do so via Points.


Browse our recent blog posts:


Posted on Tuesday 13th October at 14.30

Threat or Opportunity? COVID-19 and Working Men’s Clubs

Written by Ruth Cherrington

In 2017 Neil Anderson wrote: “The great British public will not stop consuming alcohol and they won’t stop craving entertainment. Whether they’ll be doing that in Working Men’s Clubs a decade from now is anybody’s guess.” [1]

Many clubs back then were struggling to stay afloat and the once strong nationwide “Union” of clubs was reeling from decades of decline. The number of clubs affiliated to the Club and Institute Union (CIU), which dates back to 1862, had more than halved. 

The smoking ban is often blamed for the demise but by the time that came in, in 2007, many of these not-for-profit clubs were long gone. The ban just helped to push a few of those that were already teetering over the edge. 

The decline goes much further back as widespread social and cultural change impacted negatively on the traditional night out at local working men’s clubs. Their popularity was at its peak in the mid-1970s when there were over 4000 CIU affiliated clubs. But the industrial context of redundancies and closures was already pointing towards decline. Club committees didn’t see the changes coming that would impact their members so drastically. I’ve written elsewhere about the decline that followed. 

The Langham Club, North London, entertainment schedule pre-Covid-19 times. Photo: Ruth Cherrington

Many contributory factors were beyond the control of the clubs such as increasing amounts of legislation around Health and Safety, Employment Acts, Gaming and Gambling and Equality laws. Most committee members running the clubs were volunteers and not legal experts. There were also social and cultural change and more varied leisure options. The latter included the increasing acceptance and convenience of drinking at home with home-based activities becoming popular. Supermarkets selling cheap alcohol also exacerbated the trend of staying in.

Long before COVID-19 lockdown the trend for digital entertainment was already well underway which has involved moving large chunks of our lives online. The rapid take up of videos in the 1980s was followed by DVDs, computers and the internet. With ever-more home-based leisure activities, clubs appeared less attractive or necessary. Younger people didn’t consider them to places to go on a nightly basis as previous generations of working class youth had. 

Underlying these shifts was the loss of manufacturing and other industries such as coal mining. Unemployment meant less money, or no money, to spend in the clubs that had often been at the centre of such working class leisure and communities. Some clubs worked hard to keep up with the rapidly changing times and survived into the 21st century. Those that just hoped things would return to how they used to be were more likely to close. 

There had already been over 40 years of decline before COVID-19 came along. The sudden closure of leisure spaces in late March 2020 was yet another serious challenge. Some of my contacts feared that struggling clubs wouldn’t survive.

However, we could take a positive view: that those clubs still operating when lockdown was announced are the resilient ones that had overcome previous challenges and were better placed to get through new ones because they were already taking steps to secure their future. Being closed for an indefinite period meant loss of vital income but also a chance for the elected committees that managed them to take stock and be proactive.

Plans for changes included not only redecoration but also what they offered, with more varied activities and better utilization of  rooms and facilities. Additionally, clubs have been catching up with the age of social media in terms of how they communicate with members and the local communities around them. Previous reluctance, lack of confidence and technical skills to set up websites, Facebook groups and Twitter handles have largely been overcome. Some clubs were early adopters and reached out to wider communities to tell them who they were and what they did. The Albany Club in Coventry, established in 1910, joined Twitter in 2015 and their profile sums up its offerings:

“Friendly, inclusive members’ club in Earlsdon, Coventry. Live entertainment, 3 bars, snooker, pool, crown green bowls, disco, private parties by arrangement.” 

They also have a Facebook group. Having a social media presence means that non-members hear about events and may be tempted to find out more by visiting and even joining. The more members, the more likely that a club can develop as well as just survive. 

Another Coventry club, the Willenhall Social, has a Facebook Group to advertise what’s happening as well as make good links with community campaigns and activities. 

Clubs that had already welcomed the digital age were better placed when the Covid -19 struck as they could keep members updated with what they were doing to prepare for eventual re-opening. And since then, changes needed to adjust to shifts in the policies such as the ‘rule of six’ introduced in mid September. 

The CIU itself was interested to find out what their affiliated clubs had been doing during lockdown the CIU sent out a short survey in the July edition of its Club Journal. 

CIU HQ Higbury Corner, London. Photo: Ruth Cherrington

A “good response” was reported, though the number of clubs completing the survey was not given. The results showed clubs “used the time wisely,” and took a “proactive stance in order to flourish in the future.”

Absence certainly made the heart grow fonder, with members reporting how shutdown made them appreciate how important the club was to them.

Clubs have provided a social space for friendship, family and community gatherings as well as beer, games and entertainment for over 150 years. For some, such as the elderly, their club provides their only form of social life and contact with others. Their sudden closure meant that was taken away. The CIU survey indicated that the social role and benefits of clubs remains strong. 

I believe that these benefits could be emphasized more as people realize the need for local social spaces where they can feel a sense of belonging and community. Plus, a relative cheap night out will be hugely valuable as the reality of a severe economic downturn hits home. New members could be recruited, and lapsed ones tempted back, which would bring new faces and income thereby helping to secure the future of these clubs. New Eltham Club in London, for example, is one of many that have updated their website. “You might have people who haven’t been here for several years or only know the clubs from the outside so it’s a great way to show what we have to offer.” [2]

Others link up with hyperlocal community sites to advertise themselves and encourage people to visit and join. The Langham Club in North London has done this from time to time through Harringay Online.

A lunch time drink with pals “breaks up the day” for some members. Hen Lane Club, Coventry in pre-COVID 19 times (Photo: Ruth Cherrington

As far back as 1987, clubs were being advised to remember that their “traditional social, educational, recreational and welfare objectives are the essence of their distinctiveness, and have made them an important social force in the twentieth century.” [3]

Fast- forward 33 years to a different crisis but this point remains relevant. The post-COVID future of clubs could lie to some extent in drawing upon their enduring ethos and ideals which include their not-for-profit status. The 21st century setting has brought new challenges but also some tools that can help such as social media. With the usual club experience and contact with members impossible, club committee members had to make more use of Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. 

Nearly 9% of those surveyed used social media to build up the club’s community and membership over lockdown. Facebook groups became more important for clubs’ committees, especially to let members know what was happening, when they would be reopening and how.

Coventry’s Willenhall Social Club posted an update on their Facebook page on July 28th:

“We will now be opening all day Friday Saturday and Sunday. Snooker room will be back open from Friday only 2 people per table, maximum of only 6 people in room at one time. All members must clean snooker table, balls and cues after use, wipes and sprays are provided. Bandits will reopen also from Friday.” [4]

Over 15% of clubs surveyed took advantage of lockdown to undertake routine maintenance and refurbishment. One club wrote how the members themselves gave the club a makeover, saving costs by doing it themselves. 

The Langham Club, Haringey, London was established in in 1910 and has occupied these premises since 1914. Members had to wait patiently till September for the club to reopen. (Photo: Ruth Cherrington)

This DIY attitude is part of the long club tradition. Many were set up by founder members, both in the 19th and 20th centuries, with some contributing not only the money but their labour to dig the foundations and erect simple buildings. This added to the sense of them being their own club. 

Many financial difficulties remain for clubs that have already re-opened. Survey responses indicated that clubs want the Government to do more going forward as “it’s still very, very tough in terms of trade.” (p.18). 

54.2% of respondents see the reduction of beer duty as a key action needed by the Government. The next one, selected by 22% and perhaps predictable given prior complaints about unfair competition, was action on supermarket alcohol pricing.

Changes to licensing laws were deemed necessary to even up this perceived situation of inequality and this request from clubs has been ongoing for a number of years. Whether the desired changes will be made remains to see but we can witness clubs doing the best they can to make their members both welcome and safe during the pandemic. This means keeping up with often sudden changes in the restrictions, not just at the national but also local level such as with the introduction of the three tier system in mid-October. 

Clubs will continue to work on their social media presence to communicate more widely what they have to offer and how they can do so safely. They also have to balance the books during these times when trade is considerably down. It’s to be hoped they can not only survive but attract more members who will help the clubs to keep going for the benefit of future generations. 

Footnotes

[1] Neil Anderson, The Dirty Stop Outs Guide to Working Men’s Clubs, ACM Retro, 2017:82

[2] https://www.wmciu.org.uk/Journal/CJ_Sept2020.pdf

[3] Stephen Linstead et al Club and Institute Journal, April 1987:6

[4] The “bandits” is a popular slang term for slot machines, also known as “one armed bandits” in the 1960s when they had a side arm to pull down which set the machine in motion.  



Posted on 29th June 2020 at 5.47pm

Drinking up time for the lockdown off-licence?  

Written by Magnus Copps

With the announcement that pubs will reopen on 4 July, the current phase of lockdown off-licence drinking is on borrowed time. This post looks at some trends in off-licence drinking that have grown up in the 3 months since pub closure was initially mandated by COVID-19 related restrictions, and puts them in context of historical practices of off-licence sales.  In doing so I aim to offer some food for thought for the many reflections on drinking habits and their impact before and during lockdown, the elements of the pub we miss most under it, and what might happen as it eases.

I should offer a small caveat here. I have argued elsewhere that the history and the experience of the pub is a specific and a local one and merit being studied as such. In this post I have followed my own advice with regard to changes in pubs in response to COVID-19 – I haven’t been able to go far, so my observations are made of pubs near where I live in South East London. The same can’t be said for the historic source material I use here, which, reliant on material available open-access on the internet, is necessarily more geographically promiscuous. Because of this, I offer the points below explicitly as a set of reflections and observations on practices that may have manifested very differently, or indeed not at all, elsewhere.

Off-licence sales – a long history of competition: 

Off-licence sales, whether from pubs, breweries, or other retailers are not new in the UK. Specific licences for the sale of alcoholic beverages to be consumed off the premises selling them have existed since 1834 for beersellers, and the modern system of off-licence sales in retailers is widely acknowledged to have been brought about in 1860 by the Refreshment Houses Act. This key piece of legislation made it possible for grocers and other retailers to sell alcoholic beverages for consumption off their premises without a full public house licence, an explicit attempt to associate the sale and consumption of alcohol with food. The proliferation of opportunities to buy drinks from somewhere other than the pub presented a huge threat to the trade, which, as we will see below, responded by offering better opportunities to purchase alcohol for consumption off the premises through the development of specialised spaces, sometimes known as ‘Bottle and Jug’ departments. 

When the UK’s Coronavirus lockdown was implemented on 21 March off-licence retailers were not specifically included in the list of retailers exempt from closure, a situation rapidly clarified by the UK Government on March 25th, at least partly under pressure from pubs and breweries. Having already, by virtue of a relaxation of planning regulations, been authorised to operate as hot food takeaways, many pubs appear to have turned rapidly to off-licence sales of alcoholic stock as well. This may initially have been to dispose of stock that would otherwise have spoilt, and then as the crisis extended and wore on in order to try to maintain turnover and to meet the demand of customers missing the pub experience and draught beer, as evidenced by a lockdown trend towards the Pub-in-a-box delivery service and growth, in urban areas, of pubs making off-licence sales.

Whilst the factors driving changes to pub operations in the two cases outlined above are of course wildly different, there is a commonality between the two periods in the way that we see the pub trade adapting its model to respond to consumer need. A closer look at the material infrastructure, the spaces and objects through which the relationship between pub and drinker is negotiated can offer more evidence for this, whilst also qualifying key differences. 

Socially distanced sales

To most of us living through the Coronavirus crisis the socially distanced retail experience has become ubiquitous. We have developed new social rules to manage the shuffle-dance of maintaining distance on the pavement or in the supermarket aisle, and such things are also played out in pubs making off-licence sales. Either limited numbers of customers are allowed in at any one time, or drinks are sold from the door directly onto the forecourt or the street. Two metre (and soon-to-be 1m) queuing guidelines are taped onto pub forecourts. Furniture (unused whilst internal and external drinking spaces remain out closed) is used to partition off sections of space and offer a much diversified range of products for sale. 

Figure 1 Beer sold directly onto the forecourt at The Fat Walrus, London SE14 (Author’s Own Image)

There are distinct parallels here with the purpose-built Bottle and Jug departments of the 19th and 20th centuries that, I am speculating, came about partly in response to the act of 1860 referred to above. These too were sectioned off from the main body of the pub, as can still be seen at the Royal Oak in Southwark, where a section of the central island bar opens onto a small lobby with its own dedicated door. 

Figure 2 Entrance to the former Jug & Bottle dept. Royal Oak, London SE1 (Image: Time Out)
Figure 3 Sales counter/window of the former Jug & Bottle dept. Royal Oak, London, SE1 (Image: Time Out)

Similar spaces are shown in architectural plans for examples from Bristol, where they are identified as a characteristic of pubs in residential areas (p.136) and are consistently separated from the main body of the pub by partitions and accessed by their own entrance. The same report associates this sectioning off with the use of Bottle and Jug departments by women and even children (p.135, also highlighting continued use of Bottle and Jug depts. into the 1970s), affording them the opportunity to purchase drinks for domestic consumption without having to enter the masculine space of the bar. This too is an implicit form of social distancing, in this case between the different genders in public spaces, particularly when un-chaperoned. We can imagine that users of these spaces experienced a similar force of social coercion to that demanded of us by today’s taped-off queueing points and signs limiting numbers of customers.

Interestingly, further research by Historic England highlights how Bottle and Jug departments were especially vulnerable to later alterations to pubs (p.110) hence so few of them surviving to the present day. I am curious to know if any of those that do survive have been pressed back into their original purpose in response to COVID-19. 

Bottle & Jug, or Jam Jar? 

Buying drinks from a pub for consumption off the premises by necessity requires that either the establishment or purchaser provide a vessel that can be used to transport liquids elsewhere. 

The image here shows a fragment of a vessel with a partial inscription (recovered from the Thames foreshore at Deptford in 2016) which I have reconstructed. The fragment is made of stoneware, a robust, hardwearing ceramic which is entirely non-porous, ideal for carrying liquids. One edge presents evidence for some sort of spout or lip for pouring liquid. Documentary research based on the name of the publican, George Kerridge, from the reconstructed inscription links the fragment to a pub still in operation today in London SW1, which he operated between 1842 and 1870. This story testifies to how far in some cases the vessel used for transporting drink might travel, although we can only wonder in this case as to how the fragment washed up almost 6 miles from the establishment, how long it took to get there, or what it might have been reused for in between.  

Figure 4 Inscribed stoneware jug fragment with inscription, and reconstruction (Author’s Own Image)

Vessels employed by publicans today reflect similar concerns about what in modern parlance we call brand, reusability, and also concerns for the condition of the product. The publican of the White Hart, SE14 extolled the virtues of the branded glass jar pictured to me on the basis that the beer would taste better and stay fresher for longer in it, in comparison with the generally single use plastic bottle also shown. 

Crucially, the large, visible branding on the jar also demonstrates where it was bought to all of those in the space where it is consumed. This question of the space of consumption, where the drinks purchased are then consumed off the premises and who sees this, merits further discussion.

COVID-19: Reclaiming Street Drinking 

Whilst the studies of historic Bottle and Jug departments referred to thus far have all implied that the products sold were consumed in the home, off-licence sales from urban pubs during COVID-19 can be seen to be consumed in a wider variety of spaces. 

The Instagram post illustrated here places the branded glass jar in a context of a park near the pub, both suggesting one option for where to drink the beer you buy, and bringing that branding to a much wider audience through social media. 

The park is just one option for off-licence customers that has opened up as lockdown progresses through the year and the weather improves. Off-licence pub customers have also colonised street spaces like traffic islands or grassed verges that would previously have only been the province of the homeless drinker, and in making this observation we have to ask where these most vulnerable people have been displaced to as a consequence. 

Pubs near these spaces have in recent weeks used them in social media advertising, and taken an active role in managing and keeping them clean as these once liminal elements become essential parts of their business. 

Figure 5 Off licence customers from the White Hart SE14 congregate around a disused tram stop on New Cross Road, London (Image Author’s Own)

Here, COVID-19 has prompted a clear shift in where it is socially acceptable for the middle class inhabitants of an inner city district to drink in public, forcing them to contravene social norms as strong as those that prompted the creation of purpose built Bottle & Jug departments. 

Easing lockdown, increasing surveillance – where next for Off Licence drinkers: 

July the 4th will enable to return of pub drinkers to the internal and external spaces of England’s pubs, as lockdown regulations are eased. Concerns around the retention of customer data for NHS Test & Trace infection control purposes reflect and recall histories of surveillance in the pub. This may mean, at least as long as the weather holds, that the COVID-19 generated market for off licence sales may yet persist – only time will tell. 



Posted on 10th June 2020 at 6.22pm

In the shadow of the pandemic: Alcohol and a century of culture war in Turkey

Written by Dr. Elife Biçer-Deveci

Since the lockdown due to the pandemic, news reports about illegal alcohol production and cases of methanol poisoning have increased in Turkey. Indeed, under the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) who took power in 2001, the problem of illegal alcohol production in Turkey has worsened. The media, under control of the state, is using misbehaviour and arrests due to illegal drinking in state propaganda as part of their rhetoric to demonstrate the Turkish State’s paternalistic and protective role during the pandemic.  

However, the pandemic situation provides a useful insight into the drinking culture in Turkey: the culture of drinking remains resilient in the face of all top–down attempts to impose Islamic values on the daily life of citizens. Even though this insight delivers only one aspect of Turkey’s drinking culture today – namely state policy – a historical perspective on the last few centuries complicates this simplistic view of Turkish  drinking culture, reminding us of its rich history in contrast to  the image the ruling Muslim elite wants the world to believe about a ‘genuine’ abstinent Turkish culture. 

The hundred years’ war on alcohol

Drinking became an object of public health concern for the Turkish state in the early 20th century (and not before). The modern-day region of Turkey has a rich tradition of alcohol production and drinking, going back to the Byzantine era. During the Ottoman Empire, the Islamic dogma-based alcohol ban was implemented on the Muslim population, whereas populations of other religious groups could produce and trade alcohol. The modern history of the Ottoman Empire/Turkey faces similar developments to other European countries: in the frame of globalisation, the consumption of alcoholic beverages has risen, as have new alcoholic beverages, imported goods, class distinctions along drinking behaviours, etc.

The struggle to eliminate a drinking culture from Turkish society started in the early 20th century. On 5 March 1920, the association of the Green Crescent was created by Islamic scholars and psychiatrists to fight alcohol consumption. During the First World War, the increase of drinking was seen by political and intellectual authorities as the ‘inner enemy’, and the war against it as the defence of the homeland against occupation by the Triple-Entente powers. The warlike rhetoric in the debates about alcohol consumption continue today but are limited to groups of Muslim conservatives. 

Alcohol at the front line between political ideologies

During the 1920s, Turkey faced a short prohibitionist era, resulting from the initiative of campaigners with religious concerns and inspired by the US model of prohibition. Scientific arguments, appropriated from European eugenicist ideologies and Western temperance organisations, were used as evidence for the universal validity of the Islamic principle of abstinence. In the first democratically constituted National Assembly in Turkey, the issue of alcohol functioned as the first frontline along which two political groups formed. 

The front line was mostly visible between the personalities and groups of politicians around Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) (1881-1938), who ignored the alcohol ban and drank occasionally in public, and the leader of the anti-alcohol initiative in the assembly, Ali Şükrü (1884-1923). Ali Şükrü made fiery speeches against alcohol and occasionally accused Christian communities in Turkey of poisoning Turkish families and soldiers to weaken their defences against the enemies. He challenged politicians opposing the alcohol ban on the grounds of tax loss by highlighting his fears of the potential human cost: “[T]hat the finance ministry can earn one million, at least ten million liras go into the pockets of Christians treating us openly as an enemy, and this at the cost of many humans being disgraced.”

The death of Ali Şükrü in 1923 temporarily halted alcohol debates in the Assembly. The law was changed gradually to revoke the alcohol ban and finally, in 1926, a state monopoly was imposed on alcoholic products. Since then, the idea of an alcohol ban has not been in the public interest but the Green Crescent continued its campaigns against drinking. In line with state doctrine and WHO scientific discourses, the Green Crescent has promoted medicalised discussions about alcohol and drugs and how to prevent addiction in its public events. 

Economic growth and Islamic consumer culture

The idea of a complete alcohol ban reappeared in the 1980s in the frame of new consumer culture which demanded goods and leisure spaces in accordance with Islamic principles. Major economic developments contributed to the emergence of this new Islamic consumer culture. The Turkish state, under the lead of Turgut Özal (1927-1993), introduced liberalisation reforms in the domestic market system. The consequence of these reforms was economic growth in many sectors and the economic empowerment of a middle class with Muslim conservative convictions. In this process, the production of alcohol became liberalised and oriented towards the requirements of the liberal market system. Turkish alcoholic beverages were advertised as a brand and a part of the local culture to foreign tourists. 

 At the same time, a middle class with Muslim conservative convictions gained economic benefits from the reforms of the domestic market. The new Muslim elite has promoted the gastro and hospitality sector, which meets the religious needs of Muslim domestic and foreign tourists, by providing for instance alcohol free services and gender segregation at beaches and swimming pools. In this process, the tension between Muslim conservatives and the rest of society has become more visible.

The WHO – An international actor in Islamic coating

Parallel to the economic development and the phenomenon of Islamic consumer culture in Turkey, the WHO intensified its campaigns for addiction prevention and was producing a broad range of scientific literature on the issue of alcohol, smoking and drugs. The Green Crescent, in cooperation with the Turkish state, started joint projects with the WHO and campaigns for addiction prevention. The WHO was cited in the reports of the Green Crescent, but also in the magazines of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (in Turkish: Diyanet İçişleri Bakanlığı) and other religious circles.  In these publications, the most quoted aphorism was from the Prophet Mohammad: “alcohol is the mother of all evil”. This quotation was frequently used for arguments about drinking as the cause of all social problems. 

The WHO became the second authority figure in the publications of the Green Crescent and Diyanet. Its recommendations and statistics were presented as unquestionable scientific evidence for the universal validity of the Prophet’s advice. Public health policies in European countries to reduce traffic accidents caused by drinking and to incite moderate drinking behaviours have inspired the anti-alcohol policies in Turkey. But these policies caused ideological battles because of the innate dichotomy between religion and secularism in Turkey, sometimes resulting in mass protests. Some even changed drinking behaviours as a means of protest rather than moderating drinking behaviours. Officially reclaimed as a public health issue, anti-alcohol policy in Turkey became intertwined with political ideologies.

This difference between Europe and Turkey indicates that public health policies recommended by the EU and the WHO are not effective. Based on experiences and data from Europe and the western world, they are too westernised to function in a global context. The WHO’s work on addiction prevention as well as EU alcohol-related policies need a critical investigation from a social and historical perspective.

When trying to understand drinking culture in a Muslim country whose political structures are based on the European model, we need to ask how far public health policies towards addiction prevention are effective, whether cultural, social, and religious differences are adequately considered, particularly in public engagement on these issues, and how measures are implemented in different contexts. 

The social trench during the pandemic

As the case of Turkey shows, the issue of alcohol is to be seen not only as a public health issue, but a topic from which conflicts arise. Peculiar in Turkey is the function of alcohol as a front line between political struggles about the definition of cultural identity. Drinking cultures rooted historically in the heritage of local traditions are today more than artefacts for pleasure and targets of critics in Muslim circles and Islamic teaching. The political elite neglects drinking as part of the local culture, rooted in a centuries-old tradition. 

By neglecting and othering drinking as alien to Turkish–Muslim culture, the political elite shapes and perpetuates tensions between abstinent groups loyal to the officially represented values and those who consume alcohol as a part of their social life or as an articulation of their protest against the top–down imposed values because they do not conform to these values. 

The pandemic is deepening this trench within the society, rather than uniting us, as indicated by WHO public statements. According to the WHO, avoiding alcohol is recommended to protect life and to stop the spread of the pandemic. But in the context of authoritarian regime in Turkey under the control of religious conservative elite, these recommendations are used as implicit assessments about lifestyles and cultures and to encourage abstinence and religiosity for political reasons.


Elife Biçer-Deveci specialises in the history of the women’s movement and modern and contemporary history of Turkey. She is a fellow at the Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe Forum, Transregional Studies, Berlin.

This article is based on results from the postdoctoral research project ‘Discourses about the “alcohol problem” in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey’, financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation, and François Georgeon’s Les boissons alcoolisées dans l’Empire ottoman et dans la Turquie kémaliste, CNRS Edition (publication in process).

The early 20th century anti-alcohol movement and the prohibitionist era in Turkey are topics of Elife Biçer-Deveci’s chapter ‘The Issue of Alcohol. The Battle between Islamism and Modernism’ in the upcoming publication Disputes on Alcohol in the Middle East and in the Maghreb from 19th Century to Present, edited by Elife Biçer-Deveci, Philippe Bourmaud and Nicolas Elias (Palgrave Macmillan St. Antony’s Series, Oxford).



Posted on 1st June 2020 at 2pm

Covid-19 and alcohol: mirroring stories

Written by Phil Cain

Big ideas are often born of big problems, covid-19 now joins alcohol in providing an opportunity for some fresh thinking.

Covid-19 forces us all to compromise. Our principles must take second place to its deadly threat. Beliefs which defined us a few weeks ago are now on hold.

Internationalists now call for tighter border controls. Nationalists pine for a foreign jaunt. Libertarians sit snug in their box rooms at the government’s behest. Socialists fret about the fate of commerce.

Nannies wanted

Covid-19 has destroyed the idea peddled by alcohol interests that the public is vehemently opposed to public health measures protecting their lives. Quite the reverse is true.

The public worldwide have embraced public health measures coming at a far higher cost than any of the tax, advertising or retailing measures typically proposed to take the edge off alcohol harm.

Keeping non-essential workers at home to flatten the covid-19 curve is supported by around 87% Brits. France, Italy and Spain’s more restrictive lockdown have had similarly overwhelming support.

But we all know we cannot stay in lockdown indefinitely, being further away from finding a way to live without the economy than we are from a covid-19 vaccine. 

Covid-19 and alcohol

The bizarre situation we now find ourselves in puts our approach to alcohol under the microscope. 

Should its sale be allowed? Do we have to need it in the same way as pasta or toilet rolls?  Is it more comparable to sugar, tea or oregano?

Or is any argument for curbing alcohol during lockdown not that it is inessential, but that its sale and consumption is potentially harmful? Why now and not before covid-19?

The WHO’s view is simple: “avoid or reduce alcohol consumption” during the covid-19 outbreak, because it can stoke anxiety, fear and depression, while impairing our judgement and immune systems.

But this clear message has not made its way directly to the public.  Little has been said on the subject in the UK, for instance. Policies on alcohol worldwide, meanwhile, have gone from light touch to very strict.

Assessing compromise

Strict bans on alcohol sales in South Africa and India seem to have significantly cut demand for overstretched hospitals and violent crimes, but have also had negative consequences.

In South Africa there were a few reports of looting and illicit trade. Some Indian alcohol dependents have died and the re-opening of its liquor shops created massive queues which may have worsened the virus’s spread.

Reopening pubs and bars in the UK too may yet create circumstances in which drinkers squeeze in too close, with intoxication adding to the confined circumstances. The government has commissioned research on how to minimise this risk.

In the meantime, UK home drinking does not seem to have made up for the lack of drinking in pubs bars and restaurants. Many of us have cut down. But those drinking more also seem to be those most at risk. The reality is messy.

Ideology is no solution

Alcohol, like covid-19, does not function as a carrier for any single ideology. We are, for instance, neither entirely helpless in the face of social pressures to drink, nor totally immune from it.

Cherishing our freedom to drink alcohol is undermined by it making us less capable of making rational choices. On the other hand, restrictions may increase the allure of more harmful choices.

There are ways to reduce alcohol harm which acknowledge the role the environment plays, our choices and the economy: reducing advertising, reducing availability, and increasing cost. Labelling would also help.

A lack of clear regulations and guidance leads to needless suffering and deaths. Nevertheless, the UK government’s approach to covid-19 is starting to follow the same path.

Entering a vacuum

The UK’s “stay alert” covid slogan, reportedly penned without the say-so of science advisors, serves as a denial of government responsibility, just as the phrase “drink responsibly” does for alcohol.

This political handwashing may or may not be accepted by the public. Eight out of ten people say they want health and wellbeing put ahead of economic growth during covid-19, according to pollster Yougov.

Will we blame avoidable suffering and death from covid-19 on our government or will we start seeing it as the fault of individuals, as we have for generations with alcohol? Time will tell.

None of us can escape the fact economic harm may at some point become too much for us to continue lockdowns. There are negative consequences to every decision.

Both alcohol and covid-19 involve agonising political choices balancing business and health. Politicians making clear decisions may yet prove more popular than those making ambiguity the centerpiece of their strategy. ■

Phil Cain is a freelance journalist and author specialising in alcohol. His ongoing coverage is founded on his widely-praised book Alcohol Companion.



Posted on 30th April 2020 at 5pm

Does COVID-19 mean alcohol is now considered a drug?

Written by Will Haydock.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to studying and writing about alcohol is that, as James Nicholls has said, it’s a great lens through which to look at politics and society.  It illuminates what we think about high concepts like freedom and liberalism, as well as more simply pleasure, not to mention all those distinctions we see in everyday life like ethnicity, gender, class and age.  Arguments about drinking often boil down to disagreements about morality and what ‘the good life’ really looks like.

Alcohol in the time of COVID-19 is no different.  There’s vehement disagreement about whether the lockdown is the perfect opportunity to cut down or the perfect excuse to crack open a bottle.  These aren’t just flippant suggestions or disagreements, or the desperate attempts of Polly Filler to get some new copy written.  Ian Hamilton, an academic at the University of York, has written in to the British Medical Journal, and Richard Piper, the Chief Exec of Alcohol Change UKhas weighed in on the subject.

Personally, I haven’t found many of these interventions novel or illuminating.  Like so many elements of policy or lifestyle at the moment, COVID-19 doesn’t seem to have changed minds so much as confirmed people in their worldviews.

So for once I don’t want to write about what discussions of alcohol are telling us about politics or society so much as, quite simply, what they’re telling us about how we think about alcohol.

In recent years there’s been a suggestion that drug policy is ‘converging’ across different substances.  At the same time as we’ve seen more restrictions around tobacco, for example, and people have become more aware of the health harms of alcohol, we’ve seen US states and other countries legalising cannabis for recreational use.

What COVID-19 has revealed is that, in England at least, we have a long way to go in this convergence.  We seem to have taken on the idea that alcohol is ‘no ordinary commodity’ without quite accepting it as a ‘drug’ or ‘medicine’.  People struggling with alcohol have, it seems, the worst of both worlds.

This, of course, is not news to those who’ve had problems with alcohol, or supported others through this. Alcohol treatment has long been seen as the ‘poor relation’ of treatment for heroin use, for example.  And more obviously, the ubiquity of alcohol in our society makes it harder to avoid, which can make ‘recovery’ harder.

I suppose this view isn’t so far from the ‘public health’ idea that alcohol isn’t just another ordinary commodity: perhaps it shouldn’t be so ubiquitous, and we should treat it as seriously as we do heroin.

But if alcohol really was seen as just another ordinary commodity, we wouldn’t see well-meaning volunteers at this time refusing to supply vulnerable people with whisky – as we have done in Dorset.  And in terms of those other legal ‘drugs’, we’re providing smokers with nicotine replacement therapy or vapes, and it’s hard to imagine a volunteer refusing to purchase tea or coffee because of their caffeine content.  We’ve had to issue guidance explaining to volunteers that some people are physically dependent on alcohol and the withdrawal symptoms – like seizures – that they could suffer if they don’t have their usual tipple could be life-threatening.

This might not seem so odd: the intoxication and health harms associated with alcohol aren’t generally seen as being comparable to caffeine.  But think about tobacco, or, even more instructive, heroin – one of the most demonised and feared drugs in our society.  People who are dependent on heroin are generally prescribed ‘substitute’ drugs like methadone or buprenorphine to avoid withdrawals (and the use of unreliable, risky street drugs).

At the moment, local authorities (who fund this type of treatment) and NHS and third sector provider organisations have made significant efforts to make sure that people already prescribed can get their medication, and that the service is even more easily accessible than normal.  We have local council staff and volunteers delivering this medication – and we could even have had the local brewery involved.  They ended up delivering food, but importantly not their own beer.

As I say, alcohol has got the worst of both worlds.  Not an essential commodity such that it gets picked up as a matter of course by volunteers doing grocery shopping, and yet not a ‘drug’ or medication that gets issued, come what may, through your pharmacy or even delivered to your door.

Generally, the way this issue has been resolved (or ducked, depending on your perspective) is by instructing people that precisely because alcohol is no ordinary commodity (it can cause dependence and thus life-threatening withdrawals) it should be treated just like any other commodity, and purchased unquestioningly as part of someone’s grocery shopping.  It’s this status – as an essential grocery but not a medicine – that means off-licences have been allowed to stay open.

We only then run into problems if someone is struggling to afford their alcohol.  And the pragmatic solution here is again paradoxical: because in England we haven’t taken a ‘public health’ approach and made alcohol more expensive (through minimum unit pricing, for example) it is still pretty affordable for most people.  And for those who are struggling most, this becomes a financial issue, not a health one: the state (or charities) will be providing people with free accommodation and meals, and so they should have enough remaining funds (even through benefits) to buy enough alcohol to stave off withdrawals.

I’m not suggesting this is the perfect solution, but it is one – though not the universal one.  There are some areas where, just like food parcels or medication, alcohol is being provided free of charge to people’s front door.  I’ve even been told that the amount provided is calculated based on a medical assessment of alcohol dependence such as AUDIT or SAD-Q.

There are challenges and risks with both of these approaches – the pragmatic and the medicalised.  Neither is quite satisfactory, or grasps the attraction of – perhaps ‘essential’ need for – intoxication.  Would we all want our substance use medicalised?  Is it – should it be – medicalised only if we can’t get to the supermarket and pay for the alcohol ourselves?

Often, it seems that drug policy debates use alcohol as a test case, explaining that prohibition of alcohol failed and so will any other prohibition, and that to allow one person’s preferred high (through alcohol) and not another’s (through another drug) is unjust – even analogous to apartheid.  Perhaps, though, ‘convergence’ of drug policy is only desirable if it is something more akin to a dialectic, taking the best of both worlds.  Or perhaps a contradictory pragmatism as with alcohol under COVID-19 might be more realistic?

Either way, perhaps now is the right time for those of us who are interested in alcohol for what it tells us about the wider world to sit up and instead take notice of what the wider world is telling is about alcohol.



Follow the DSN Blog:

Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.