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Caught in the Crosshair

The anti-tobacco campaign is now being retargeted on alcohol

There is a curious – and ill-judged – tendency amongst many beer lovers to consider their chosen vice as somehow resistant to the attentions of the health lobby as opposed to tobacco. Even CAMRA have fallen for it. In 2004, they weakly attempted to defend pubs from the harmful effects of the smoking ban by playing right into tobacco control hands and suggesting that a diversity of outlets offering choice for all would “split the pub trade” [1]. In the end, they got their wish as all pubs were given no choice. Now, you can argue, if you like, that this has had no damaging effect on the hospitality trade (I’d heartily disagree) but it has certainly contributed to a big problem for pubs, and beer lovers, which is only now beginning to come home to roost.

In a rousing 1919 speech following the ratification of Prohibition in the US, “anti-saloon” campaigner Billy Sunday declared “Prohibition is won, now for tobacco!” [2] Because all the while campaigners for the prohibition of alcohol were tied up with that issue, their assault on smoking was left on the back burner. Once the war against alcohol was completed, resources were freed up to attack tobacco, employing the same personnel and moral pleading which was so successful against booze.

Nothing has changed from those days. Just as righteous crusaders tackled both substances around a century ago, so do their modern day equivalents act the same now. ASH have taken to coaching anti-alcohol campaigners on how to achieve the same demonisation of alcohol as has happened with tobacco [3], and the methodology is lifted from the successful anti-smoking playbook. Professor David Nutt was the first to suggest that “there is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol consumption” [4], a position which is increasingly becoming the default one. The Cancer Council of Australia certainly thinks that way, a couple of months ago advocating that total abstinence should be the only public health policy. In a chilling reminder of post-prohibition triumphalism in the US, the Australian press reported the campaign as “Cigs war won: now cancer campaigners set their sights on beer” [5].

CAMRA keeps ploughing this furrow, as in August last year where they tried to claim some form of high ground by declaring that “beer can supplement a healthy lifestyle if consumed in a responsible manner” [6], but this approach is doomed if they think that playing in public health’s self-constructed playground is going to do anything but invite ridicule. ‘No safe level’ leaves no wriggle room whatsoever, and the protestation that beer is somehow not that bad will be thrown back at them by the health lobby as an admission of guilt. Which it is.

No. The best form of defence, as always, is attack. And instead of back-sliding when the smoking in pubs debate was taking place, CAMRA would have been better served standing firm and resisting all legislation on tobacco. While that buffer was still in place, CAMRA were insulated against the worst excesses of an insatiable health lobby. Without it, resources are being withdrawn from tobacco in favour of new targets [7], and those who enjoy a pint or two are now squarely in the crosshair.


[2] Smoke: A Global History of Smoking (Sander L. Gilman and Zhou Xun)






(This is a special guest column by Top 50 political blogger Dick Puddlecote)