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.
- “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]
Video/podcast: A more rational alcohol tax
On the eve of Brexit and the Budget I talked with Scott Corfe, research director of the Social Market Foundation think-tank about his proposals for a more rational form of alcohol tax.
- “If an increase in alcohol tax has a regressive impact, you can mitigate that elsewhere, through more generous benefits or through curbing other types of tax.” [19m04s]
- “Minimum alcohol pricing and alcohol duty are policies which have different impacts.” Duty might be a way to cut drinking among higher income groups, who are the biggest drinkers. [13m51s]
- The Conservatives have committed to a review of alcohol duties, possibly diverging from EU rules. Nevertheless, “This might be an area where Europe puts its foot down.” [13m06s]
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. ■