Breaking the habit

Wednesday, 6. September 2017 - 16:00

Motoring journalists rarely linger over the injuries and deaths that result from crashes and accidents, and it’s an unusual wine writer who raises the subject of alcoholism.

On the other hand, motoring media and manufacturers love to talk about how much safer vehicles are than they used to be.

Wine, by contrast, has if anything become more dangerous, thanks to an increase in its average alcoholic strength from 12% to 12.5% in the 1980s to 13% to 14% today. Whether this trend can be blamed on climate change, changes in viticulture or the tastes of US critics is not the concern of this column (though as someone who can remember helping to chaptalise 9% Burgundy in 1977, I know what I think). What interests me is how the wine industry is planning to respond to a recent publication in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. This reveals the results of a study involving nearly 80,000 subjects, suggesting that 30m Americans – one in eight – may “actively struggle with alcohol abuse”.

Wine professionals have a number of ways to react to this kind of thing.

First, there’s the It Wasn’t Me. It Was The Other Guy approach: “Wine is a civilised beverage that’s always enjoyed with food - unlike other forms of brewed and distilled alcoholic drinks”

Of course that won’t really do. There is absolutely no difference between young women becoming dependent on a daily dose of Cupcake Red Velvet and their male partners’ need for Jack Daniels. Most drug enforcement agencies make little distinction between whether a Class A narcotic comes in a sniffable, swallowable, smokeable or injectable form.

Next there’s the Climate Change Denial model: ‘This information is distasteful to me so I’ll frankly refuse to accept that it’s true”. So, people who acknowledge NASA scientists’ expertise when it comes to sending spacecraft to Saturn dismiss those same experts’ views on greenhouse gases. They trust doctors to fix their shattered limbs and faulty heart valves but dismiss what they have to say about diet and alcohol.

Then there’s Get Off My Back: “I don’t care if it’s true or not; I just wish you’d stop saying it”. Anyone who imagines that this will prove effective should look at the recent experience of the tobacco industry.

Another favourite is All We Need Is Education: “Consumers simply need to be taught how to handle alcohol responsibly.” Presumably in the same way and with the same success as they are being taught to avoid obesity and to stop smoking.

Finally there’s the old chestnut, We’re Doing What We Can: “I’ve printed Drink In Moderation messages everywhere. What more do you want?”

Clearly this message isn’t getting through well enough – even to the wine professionals who are so ready to transmit it. I honestly cannot recall a lunch or dinner at which any of us has paused to say “don’t you think that half a bottle of Cabernet each is quite sufficient?”

What the wine industry conveniently overlooks is the cost of the damage wrought by alcohol abuse. Somebody has to pay for all those hospital admissions and treatments and, depending on the country in question and its healthcare system, that’s going to be taxpayers or customers of insurance companies.

Governments will almost inevitably react by treating alcohol in the same way that they have treated tobacco: by restricting its use and raising its cost through taxation. As self-drive cars begin to become available, it is easy to foresee the introduction of a zero-tolerance drink-drive regime, for example.

Insurers could easily introduce or ramp up the kind of workplace screening that has been commonplace since the 1970s in the US where health cover is notoriously expensive. In 2014, according to a Business Insider article, over 9m US employees provided urine samples to just one drug testing company, and the 2016 legalisation of cannabis is states including California only raises the likelihood of companies introducing this strategy. Residual alcohol from last night’s Napa Cabernet may prove to be no more acceptable than the weed smoked after the meal.

Alcohol and cannabis are both potentially addictive. But so is betting, which is why it may be time for wine producers to learn a few lessons from the gambling industry.

In New Zealand, there are over 60 treatment centres where qualified counsellors offer their services to men and women affected by gambling addiction. The programme, which was launched nearly 30 years ago, is run by the Problem Gambling Foundation of New Zealand and funded by a levy on the alcohol industry.

Contrast this approach with Britain’s Drinkaware, ‘an alcohol education charity that works with drinks companies and retailers to help tackle alcohol misuse… to promote responsible drinking’. I’m sure that writing the occasional cheque to Drinkaware makes the bosses of booze companies feel a lot better, but I’ll bet that a middle-aged man with a drink problem in Auckland is getting more help from his country’s wine industry – and potentially costing his fellow taxpayers less money – than his counterpart in London.

That estimate of one in eight Americans being problem drinkers is almost certainly a huge exaggeration, but no one in the wine industry can deny the addictive dangers of the product we make, promote and sell. And while in 50 years time the advent of self-driving cars may have slashed the number of automobile crashes and accidents, those dangers will not have gone away.

So if, as wine professionals, we really want to reduce the impact of alcoholism, maybe it's time to learn a few lessons from New Zealand.

Robert Joseph