Is the temperance movement coming back?

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Related tags: Alcohol consumption, Temperance movement

Health secretary Dawn Primarolo sounds like a sort of a cross between a creamy cheese from a tube and a toffee-filled chocolate. But her opening...

Health secretary Dawn Primarolo sounds like a sort of a cross between a creamy cheese from a tube and a toffee-filled chocolate. But her opening words at last November's National Alcohol Conference were enough to send a chill down the spine.

"There is an argument - a very strong argument," she said, "that problem drinking is, in a sense, becoming 'the new smoking' in terms of the challenge that it presents to public health."

This is what the trade fears. The government is going to crack down on drinking as it cracked down on smoking, drastically reducing alcohol's availability through tighter regulation and higher taxes.

In fact, we are already well into the process, the next phase of which, as the government announced earlier this month, will be mandatory controls on drinks promotions and the enforcement of smaller measures of wines and spirits.

It's "the temperance book without the hymns" Andrew McNeill says of New Labour's alcohol policy. And he should know. McNeill is director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) which, despite its scientific trappings, is part of an international temperance movement that has its roots in 19th century evangelical teetotalism. Key backers of the IAS include the Independent Order of Good Templars (IOGT) and Hope UK, formerly the Band of Hope.

Until recently temperance was a joke, conjuring up images of hymn-singing and tambourine-rattling, fervid preaching and grim piety from its Victorian heyday. But in the last few years the direct descendants of those cartoon characters have felt confident enough to use the word proudly once again.

And they are back swimming in the mainstream of political opinion. In November 2007 Gordon Brown hosted a Downing Street summit on the perils of binge-drinking. In addition to drinks industry leaders the chairman of IAS, Professor Brian Prichard, was present. The IAS is also prominent in the Alcohol Health Alliance, which formalises the powerful coalition that has emerged between temperance and the health lobby.

How did this happen? Over 30 years or so the ideas of temperance and health have converged, gaining purchase with the government during the moral panic around binge-drinking. The IOGT, after decades of getting nowhere, shelved its aspirations for prohibition and instead played for reducing overall consumption, working for restrictions on alcohol through mainstream bodies.

At the same time the medical profession moved away from the 'disease theory' of alcohol problems, which focuses on individuals, towards a 'whole population' approach at the core of which is the idea that a reduction in alcohol consumption across a society has a direct and positive impact on the general health of that society.

Whether this is true or not is by no means settled. But right now the theory holds sway - and the government believes it. Making the case for a mandatory code of practice, the Home Office uses research from the University of Sheffield that makes a hard-cash calculation of what an overall reduction in alcohol consumption can save the NHS and others.

A footnote in the report adds: "A one per cent reduction in alcohol consumption is not the target for this policy, nor is it an estimate of any likely effects."

But if the policy is designed to purely target problem drinkers why mention it? And forcing all pubs to offer smaller glasses is clearly intended to reduce consumption.

The 'whole population' approach means medics and government are singing off the same hymn-sheet as the surviving currents of temperance for whom we are all, potentially, sinners.

So are we on the road to prohibition? For the activists of new temperance we are only at the thin end of a fat wedge. And they are going to keep on pushing.

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