Video: Meet the 170-year-old sobriety movement

The current wave of attention might make it seem like tackling alcohol harm is a new thing, but far from it. Movendi International has been working in the area for nigh-on 170 years, with a name change from IOGT last month the latest evolution. Its president Katarina Sperkova talks with me here about the organisation’s legacy, its values, policies and hopes for the future.

Key points:

  • “We can see a boom in coming out as a person who has a problem with alcohol and being confident in talking about it.”  [1m47s]
  • Reasons for the name-change: “There are very few members in the organisation that understand what a ‘good templar’ is. They have never been part of any order.” [4m15s]
  • “IOGT [the name adopted in 2006] was difficult to explain. … People were asking what it is? We didn’t have any good answer. We really needed to move away from that name.” [4m57s]
  • On the use of ritual and regalia. “I have never experienced it as a member and I have been active in the organisation since 1999.” [6m29s]
  • The number of member organisations with such practices “I would count them on one hand” [6m51s]. The practices are important for them as part of a recovery process.
  • On being an umbrella organisation: “We are not taking active steps in finding individual members.” [10m13s] It might assist in creating an organisation when one does not exist.
  • The situation in the global south, “It reminds us very much of the situation in 1851 in the US [when Movendi began].” [13m43s]
  • 14 out of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals are “negatively impacted by alcohol harm”. [16m57s]
  • Areas where it has a negative impact are: Poverty, gender-based violence and sexist advertising undermining gender equality, access to water.
  • What does “alcohol prevention” mean in the organisation’s catchline? “What we are talking about is to reduce harm caused by alcohol, or prevent harm caused by alcohol. … It is definitely not a prohibitionist term.” [20m16s] 
  • The phrase also includes recovery because people who recover “create alcohol-free space”, which influenced people around them. [21m54]
  • “We do not interfere in people’s personal choices. What is important for us is what a society offers to people.” [22m50]
  • Have we got another 170 years of this same story? “I have a very strong belief this is about to change. … I think it has already changed.” [25m17s]

Dry January is a vital part of the alcohol debate

The difficulty of putting a lid on our alcohol drinking for a month or more provides us with important understanding of alcohol and the often bewildering public debate around it.

How can we understand the impact of advertising, taxation tweaks or the complex interplay of mind, body and environment? The answer is, by experiencing them ourselves.

Having an ad for our favourite tipple pop up just as we managed to ignore the urge to pour ourselves one helps us understand how advertising stimulates alcohol demand.

The effort we need to make to swerve the alcohol aisle in the supermarket or the offie shows how availability is a challenge to those wanting to limit their consumption.

How can we understand the social pressures to drink alcohol without at some point trying to rebuff the alcoholic ribbing of our friends, family and colleagues?

Opening our wallets to find folding money in there on Sunday morning shows us in no uncertain terms that increasing alcohol prices increases the incentive to cut down.

So it is that Dry January, and all similar short-term quitting initiatives, offer valuable first-hand insight into the key elements of the policy discussion around alcohol.

It allows us to feel first-hand the challenges faced by anyone looking to reduce their alcohol intake, difficulties experienced most intensely by those of us most deeply affected.

Dry January and the like establish a valuable common ground of shared experience which can inform an often off-putting discussion which, nevertheless, has huge potential to improve health and well-being.

The exercise of quitting alcohol, albeit often temporary, connects a personal assessment of the benefits of changing our own alcohol habits to something far wider.

A DIY quitting exercise was fundamental to my writing. Alcohol’s complex challenges need to be tackled with empathy as well as analytical thought.

Wider understanding provides the platform needed for informed alcohol policy. Dry initiatives go a long way towards informing us on every level. ■

Alcohol: Why not all use millilitres?

We could make alcohol health guidelines easier to picture, calculate and compare internationally by giving them all in millilitres.

We measure oil, water and every other liquid in metric units, so why use 20-odd different units for alcohol?

It is like a throwback to the bygone days in which Europe operated on a bewildering array of measurement systems.

An account of a medieval journey might mean converting the Finnish virsta (Russian or Swedish) to the Rheinland miele

This week’s new proposed weekly guideline of saw us scrabbling for the definition of the “Australian standard drink”.

Once converted to 125ml it could be compared easily to the UK one of 140ml, itself normally given in local units.

Offering it to begin with in millilitres would avoid this process, allowing consumers and nerds a ready-made comparison.

It would make recommendations more intuitive too. We can imagine 100ml far more easily than a bespoke unit.

The volume of alcohol is a good guide too, giving a direct picture of the number of molecules it contains, so its effects.

Using millilitres as a standard means only needing to do a one-step calculation to work out a dose, not two or three.

The alcohol present in a drink is just a drink’s alcohol percentage by volume multiplied by its volume. That’s it.

So, for example, in 500ml of 5% beer there is 0.05x500ml of alcohol, or 25ml. 

One large continental lager is, then, a fifth of the Australian weekly low-risk guideline total of 125ml.

Using alcohol specific units, by comparison, we might have two more stages, perhaps converting to mass on route.

We need not drop local units, which some may find helpful, but we could easily add the equivalent amount in millilitres in brackets.

This would be a simple way to reduce barriers in a field in which international cooperation is essential. ■

Little or no alcohol is a good move for our mental health

Consistently drinking little or no alcohol is a solid foundation for our mental health. So why don’t we say so?

Alcohol worsens and causes common aggravations like low mood and anxiety, while prolonging our recovery from traumatic events. So why would we make our lives harder?

There is not a one-size-fits-all alcohol guidelines for mental health, but the UK’s low-risk guidelines of drinking no more than 14 units (140ml) a week is, perhaps, a reasonable starting point.

Avoiding drinking entirely can be easier than trying to drink little. So a “sober sprint” like Dry January could be a good way to begin a long-term low-risk drinking lifestyle.

Finding our bounce
Developing an ability to cope with life’s slings and arrows of outrageous fortune without drinking alcohol tends to be better for our mental health in the long term.

Drinking alcohol has the opposite effect, worsening our mood and increasing our anxiety, although it may seem otherwise. This misleading impression can make it hard to go without it.

This misconception can mean we drink heavily when we suffer more significant traumas, and this may mean we start developing side-effects when we are alcohol-free, including low mood and anxiety.

Drinking more than a small amount of alcohol increases our chances of suffering more psychological discomforts. We are all likely to feel better for reducing this risk.

Drinking little or no alcohol is the best way to spare ourselves such needless mental anguish in the long term. This applies to everyone, regardless of our current drinking habits.

Lost in vaguery
This simple message is seldom clearly expressed. We tiptoe around it rather than simply telling people a simple fact which might spare them discomfort.

Counsellors and other caring professional are often loath to say it to clients, though the reasons for this reluctance are not easy for an outsider to understand.

Some say they do not want to “label” their clients, something they prefer to leave to the medical system. Perceived labelling, they say, would imperil the client-counsellor relationship.

There would also be, one counsellor says, legal risks to giving such advice too. Instead, then, counsellors prefer to point clients with alcohol worries to their GPs.

But patients often do not want to talk to their GPs. And GPs too can be squeamish about talking to their patients about our alcohol drinking, again for fear of dropping a clanger.

Put it straight
Wariness is understandable. But sensitivity should not get in the way of relaying simple information that can help us. The stigma around this advice is born of misunderstanding.

Observing that little or no alcohol drinking provides us the most reliable platform for better mental health applies to us all, regardless labels. ■

Alcohol education is essential

Knowledge is necessary to inspire, shape and sustain positive change, with its dissemination providing the conditions for this change to occur. Alcohol is no exception.

We cannot require anyone to learn about alcohol, no more than we can require them to learn about physics or the Brontë sisters, but everyone should have the chance.

An accurate understanding of alcohol based on scientific research offers a solid basis for us to safeguard our wellbeing, both as individuals and as a society. 

Regulating alcohol prices, availability and ads are more effective as direct interventions, but education is necessary for these measures to be designed, justified and accepted.

Increasing the alcohol knowledge base of politicians, citizens and the media are preconditions for the implementation of effective alcohol policy. 

An asset for individualists 
A coherent understanding of alcohol is far better for us as individuals than relying on traditional rules of thumb, enabling us to avoid a wide array of misfortunes.

Those informed about alcohol can help themselves and others to avoid mistakes. Informed people can better help those who suffer alcohol harm and become a positive influence.

An understanding of the reasons for guidelines and regulations makes them far more likely to make people take heed than blind trust or irritation born of confusion.

The effects of alcohol are inherently misleading. We are bombarded by misleading ads with flimsy regulation and alcohol industry-run information platforms.

Inaccurate beliefs are therefore common, just as they are in stock market bubbles and politics. Grassroots education is the only way to put a lid on the spread of misconceived ideas.

Underpinning change
Financial education does not provide a safeguard from financial mistakes, but it does make us justifiably wary and recognise the benefit of robust regulation.

And, should we fall prey to financial misfortune, we can find the financial knowledge we need to understand what went wrong and how to avoid it in future.

Reliable alcohol knowledge can fulfil a similar role, helping to improve the lives of those who embrace it, for next to nothing, and enabling us to make the best of mistakes.

Alcohol education does not offer immediate, measurable payoffs, but a lack of understanding rarely has positive outcomes in any other area. Alcohol should not be shrouded in mystery.

Education ranks low on the policymakers’ alcohol to-do list, but it still remains vital to achieving a less harmful relationship with alcohol long term.

Learning about alcohol, a topic with enormous social, psychological, economic, health and political reach, can help us engage more fully as citizens as well as students. ■

Teenage participation in risky activities

Gamblers vs. non-gamblers, 11-16s, UK, past seven days

Source: Source: Gambling Commission, Young People and Gambling Survey 2019

Two-fifths of child gamblers between the ages of 11 and 16 drank an alcoholic drink in the previous seven days, four times the rate among non-gamblers, according to a survey published today by the UK government gambling regulator. ■

Rethinking alcohol and high achievement

A rational explanation of why alcohol consumption and high-achievement so often seem to go hand-in-hand may help us find better alternatives.

Open a newspaper and we will often read of actors, sports stars, writers, artists and politicians who got ahead as heavy alcohol drinkers, albeit often with unhappy results in the long term.

Just last week Casey Legler, a French American freestyle swimmer, told of how she broke an Olympic record at the age of 19 while she was drinking a lot and suffering abuse.

On a more everyday level too we will all probably know someone—or, perhaps, be someone—who is wildly successful while also clocking up eye-watering bar bills.

The belief heavy drinking and success go together is encapsulated in the, “Work hard. Play hard,” ethos of many groups, where “playing hard” is a euphemism for sinking more than a few drinks.

It needs a rethink. There’s no problem with working hard, if you want to achieve something, but, “Work hard. Play well,” is more likely to prove a more fruitful long-term strategy.

Explaining the illogical
The combo of success and binging defies elementary explanation. Alcohol impairs brain function, lowers mood and resilience, causes accidents, and upsets sleep and erodes physical health. 

Why, then, is heavy drinking so common in those who do above averagely? Their privileged environment is often key to this, helping buffer them from the downsides.

But the unlikely pairing may also be aided by this: Drinking alcohol to soothe the side-effects of hard work, then working extra hard to soothe the side-effects of alcohol drinking.

This cycle would make sense because exceptional achievements are typically born of extra hard work, whether it is physical training or mental gymnastics.

Athletes endure endless hours of gruelling training and competition, and uncomfortable recovery. So too, in another way, do artists, entrepreneurs, scholars and ace employees.

And it works, superficially. Inebriation can feel every bit like a wholesome recovery and reward. But, alas, in reality, it is a feeling which doesn’t last long and with repercussions later.

After the feeling of inebriation is over alcohol typically increases our anxiety, lowers mood and disrupts the most reliable recovery mechanism we have, sleep.

Not realising these downsides, however, we might push ourselves harder still, feeling invulnerable to the consequences. We feel sure we will be just fine right after we hit the bar.

Ingenious creatures that we are, we might also use alcohol’s uncomfortable side-effects to our advantage too. Feeling crummy can mean we seek relief in our vocation.

Exercise and concentrated work can provide relief from hangovers and withdrawal symptoms. So alcohol may ease the side-effects of work, then work the side-effects of alcohol. 

The amazing achievements of heavy drinking heroes show this process can deliver. But later suffering and misfortune also shows it is rarely sustainable.

Going sustainable
This outline explanation alone does not offer a specific alternative route to achieving success without alcohol. It does, however, hint at the advantages of finding them.

Alcohol only softens the discomfort from our exertion. There are others ways to do this without side-effects, ones less likely to inspire us into unrealistic overtraining and overworking.

And we need not always see anxiety and low mood negatively. They can inspire action when kept at bearable levels. Low risk drinking and not drinking can help achieve this.

If we are drinking heavily, maybe having some degree of dependence, it may take between three months and a year of barely drinking to be free of low mood and anxiety.

We will not lose the motor we use to achieve our ambitions by making this investment. We can still harness the energy of our angst, most likely for far longer. ■

Alcohol safety labelling may be about to get worse

An apparent forward step on alcohol safety labelling last week may, in fact, signal that it is about to get worse.

The alcohol industry Portman Group (PG) says it agreed with the health department “for the removal of out-of-date information” by September 1st. But it does not mention adding current low-risk guideline amounts.

Adding the weekly guidelines is not among the minimum “best practice options”. Instead, PG offers advice on how to “reflect” weekly consumption guidelines it refers to as “revised” though current since January 2016.

PG emphasises it offers advice while ignoring the fact that none of its members are committed to follow it. So years of foot-dragging on safety labelling may yet morph into a full-blown reverse.

The health department agreed a September 1st deadline for the alcohol industry action in March 2017. The existence of the “grace period” was unknown until a speech by then junior minister Steven Brine in January.

Few may yet realise it, but the grace period may have just been quietly extended and also expanded to green-light alcohol suppliers to offer no weekly consumption guidelines at all. ■

Tepid reception for industry alcohol labelling pledge

News the biggest players in the UK’s alcohol industry have agreed to put weekly drinking guidelines on their labels, a month before a government deadline to do so, has prompted little jubilation among health advocates.

The Portman Group, an alcohol industry mouthpiece, dribbled out the news in a piece in the Daily Mail, couching its promise with a caveat about it being subject to “feasibility”. Jubilation was muted, with the UK’s trust-based system taking some 1,300 days to get this far.

The government agreed to let the alcohol industry have a “grace period” until September 1st to comply in March 2017, only making the agreement widely known in January this year. The terms of any new arrangement underlying today’s statement are unknown.

“This half-hearted pledge, by some parts of the alcohol industry, is a strong indicator that the UK deserves a fair system that sets a level playing field for all food and drinks producers,” the Alcohol Health Alliance told Alcohol Companion.”

“All alcohol products must advise drinkers about both the contents and consequences of consumption to empower consumers to make fully- informed choices about their health.”

“While this marks a half-step forward, it shows that the current system of alcohol industry self-regulation is failing consumers,” said Katherine Severi, head of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, which provides a health slant on alcohol policy

It remains to be seen what effect the Portman Group agreement will have, if any. It could prove to be mostly about refreshing the label for a period of inaction from “grace period” to “feasibility period”. ■