The moderation myth

The moderation myth

It’s National Stop Smoking Day on Wednesday. The theme for this year is ‘proud to be a quitter’. I love this idea. In life we’re always told to never give up and to keep going – but when it comes to something like smoking, being a quitter is definitely a good thing.

start living cropI find most public health campaigns about smoking are very bold. They cut to the chase. Just look at this leaflet I found in my doctor’s surgery, called ‘stop smoking, start living’. Look how happy the man is! Inside, there are action plans and step-by-step guides, all with the goal of getting people to stop completely. The leaflet acknowledges that quitting smoking can be tough, but the message is clear: all the hard work is worth it.

So why don’t we take the same approach with alcohol?

Take a look at this yellow leaflet.yellow crop (The waiting room at my local surgery must have at least ten different leaflets about smoking, but there’s only one about alcohol and this is it.) At first glance, it looks a bit like a children’s storybook – check out the cartoon characters and the non-confrontational, lower case text. Here’s what it says on the first page:

‘Cutting down doesn’t have to mean giving up. The good news is there’s no need to stop drinking alcohol altogether. All you really need to do is stick within the guidelines below.’

For me, there’s a very big problem here. This statement reinforces the idea that stopping drinking is a negative thing, or that it means missing out. It implies that sobriety is miserable and frankly, rather unnecessary. It’s a strange message to have in a public health leaflet, but I see this advice everywhere. When it comes to booze we’re always telling people to simply cut down. Why is this? With other poisonous substances we don’t tiptoe around the issue. We don’t say to people, “the good news is there’s no need to stop taking heroin completely. Just cut down!” Or “there’s no need to stop smoking altogether!” So why say this about booze? Alcohol is an addictive substance.

According to the leaflet, if you drink above the recommended guidelines, bad stuff will happen. You’re at risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, oesophagus and larynx, breast cancer, stroke, heart disease, reduced fertility … the list goes on. But if you play nicely, stick to the rules and stay within the guidelines then you’ll be ok because there’s only a ‘low risk of harm’.

There are lots of tips about how to ‘get sneaky and cut back’. There’s nothing earth shattering though: the suggestions include drinking out of a smaller glass, starting your first drink later in the day or taking less cash with you. My favourite (not at all patronising) suggestion is, ‘When you get the urge to pour yourself a glass, put the kettle on and enjoy a cuppa instead’ (!)

At no point do the cuddly cartoon characters suggest that moderating your drinking is just one option.

There is no mention of stopping drinking completely. There’s no advice about what to do if cutting back doesn’t work. Nowhere does it point out that if you’re trying to control your drinking, then on some level, alcohol is already controlling you.

Don’t get me wrong, I think moderation is a good starting point. It’s definitely worth trying and it works for some people. But I think we should be more accepting of the fact that it doesn’t work for everyone. And when you think about it, why should it? If your preference is to drink more, why would you feel content with less? And what makes us think we can exercise willpower after consuming a mind-altering drug? We’re not superhuman.

Trying to moderate your intake means you’re constantly having to make decisions and bargain with yourself. Will you drink tonight? How much? When? Where? There is this idea that ‘a little of what you fancy does you good, but with booze, science is against us. When we drink, we build up a tolerance to the effects of alcohol. So over time, that moderate glass of wine doesn’t create the same buzz that it used to, so you’re left wanting more.

If things are going to change, we really need to get past this idea that alcohol-free living is some kind of painful, uncool, boring existence.

Every time a public health leaflet says ‘there’s no need to stop drinking altogether!’ it reinforces the idea that alcohol brings us some kind of joy that we cannot get elsewhere. If sobriety really was that dire, then I – and many others – would have gone back to drinking.

Now I know that telling people they need to stop drinking may not go down well. I get that. Perhaps it would seem too bossy. Maybe it would backfire. But just think about what we’ve done with cigarettes. Fags are well and truly out of fashion; they’ve had a serious make-under. Smoking is no longer the social norm – in the UK just 18% of adults smoke. It’s incredible, especially when you consider that not so long ago, smoking was the epitome of cool and glamour; cigarettes were endorsed by Hollywood icons and people could light up anywhere. So surely, if we can change public attitudes to one toxic, poisonous substance, then we can do the same with another?

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17 Comments

  1. So very well put, Kate! Makes so much sense.

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  2. I read something the other day about a girl who decided to take on the challenge of competing in a bodybuilding bikini class. Over the period of her training, she stopped going out because although she really wanted to socialise with her friends, the continual questioning over why she wasn’t drinking left her feeling alienated by everyone. It seems for women, the only valid reason we’re allowed to give for choosing sobriety is pregnancy, and then there is an expectation that you’ll return to drinking as soon as you can. It’s profoundly unfair having to explain our healthy choices to people, and utterly beyond my comprehension that we’re judged for them. Sigh. End of rant!

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    • I quite agree. It baffles me that people will cheer you on if you quit smoking, or lose weight etc – but when you stop drinking they assume you’re pregnant!

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  3. ‘Cutting down doesn’t have to mean giving up. The good news is there’s no need to stop drinking alcohol altogether. All you really need to do is stick within the guidelines below.’

    I’m genuinely shocked. That is the most pathetic piece of advice to give about alcohol! Especially compared to the message we get about smoking. It’s crazy and it does a disservice to everyone who is genuinely in need of help and potentially destroying their life through drink.

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  4. This!!!
    I was unable to control my drinking which is why I had to stop…I didn’t want to but I had to. My gp told me to cut back, use a smaller glass, that my liver function was fine so not to worry!

    You are so right.This babyish leaflet takes the patronising approach that it’s ok to drink within the alledged safr guidelines…that it is boring to stop and why would anyone want to deny themselves a drink!

    Alcohol is everywhere. It’s cheaper, more readily available and certainly more socially acceptable than any other addictive substance! Yet there is so little help out there… its just wrong!!

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  5. “If you’re trying to control your drinking, then on some level, alcohol is already controlling you.”

    So true, and thank you for the reminder…this is the cold logic of the situation that I sometimes have to explain to others.

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  6. Great article Kate. This whole concept of ‘it’s ok, you can still have a couple, we know you want to’ does my head in. Talk about pandering to keep the PR in place!
    I stopped drinking in December 2014 (wooooo bloody hooooooo I feel amazing!!!!) and I am married to a normie. We will still go out for lunches and dinners often and he’ll have a couple of beers while I use the opportunity for water intake (weird, but sparkling water gives me the satisfaction I always looked for in booze). So I get to see people at tables around me change as the time passes. It’s interesting. It doesn’t seem happy at a majority of the room. There’s an air of melancholy. Like there’s trouble a brewing. I’m aware that to say anything like this to drinkers… I just sound evangelical to them becausthey don’t want their ‘precious’ taken away. Because it’s all been anonymous – a dirty little secret – for society for so long, the normal drinkers figure it’s not a problem at all and those people for whom it is a problem are just grotty drunks who stink. But if they look around a room and know that quite a high percentage of people are putting on a front, and are going home tonight after Act 1 and are going to sit and numb the world out again and have don’t for a while now… These are their mothers and wives and sisters. Interestingly, a lot of husbands, sons and brothers approach me at the bar (we sound like lawyers, haha) when I’m getting my next big bottle of sparkling water, having a lovely old time with my husband and friends booze free, and they ask ‘do you not drink? At all?’. No and no. Then I see them go back to their companions and there’s the woman in their life who they care about with the facial muscles all relaxed and heading south (boy I remember that) and the man I’ve just briefly met a the bar who has seen too much night after night to lie to himself anymore, and he’s just seen a glimpse of another possibility from a stranger at the bar and he’s now filled with hope and hopelessness and possible disappointment. They don’t tend to catch my eye much after that (the guy) because it’s just too effing painful, the whole idea of it. Not only do you push crap uphill, but society is against you along with it. (Nb: I am highlighting women here because, in my experience, it’s all the women who are going home and knocking it back, like I used to, a bottle and a half a night for 20 years.)

    Which is why this sober school is amazing Kate. It’s bringing it out and becoming the norm. You’re amazing. Kate, can you use your connections in the flash journo world to get famous non-drinkers having their faces on pamphlets in the doc surgery and on the tv? Personally, the turning point for me was Ewan Macgregor. He’s my main man and when I knew he didn’t drink I knew cool non-drinkers existed without making a big deal out of it. Sorry for the long comment, oh dear…

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    • Thank you Julie – great to hear your observations and congratulations on kicking the habit! I’m not sure I’ll be able to convince any celebs to put their face to this kind of leaflet just yet… but you never know. Maybe one day! 😉

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  7. We have a crazy relationship with booze, I’m an ex smoker too and totally see the huge difference in attitude towards two equally, addictive and destructive substances. I’m 13 days in and can’t believe the massive difference simply seeing alcohol and my relationship with it differently has made to giving it up. I was so scared for so long about “never drinking again” and clung on making excuse after excuse. The last two weeks have been amazingly easy and I only think about today. Just have to cut down on the cake and toffee now (sweet cravings).
    Let’s hope more and more people wake up to the truth soon.

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  8. Well said! I hate the way society tells us you only need to give up alcohol completely if your liver has packed in. And EVEN THEN the advice from medical professionals is not always clear cut. A friend of mine who recovered from cirrhosis(after a year of no drinking) was then told by their doctor that drinking in moderation was ok. Surely it should be clear from their medical history that this person is unable to moderate their drinking! It would be so much easier for people in this situation to stop drinking if the ‘moderation myth’ as you so eloquently call it was exposed for what it is.

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  9. Thanks Kate, your well thought out, insightful article comes right at needed. I quit 2 and a half months ago. For that amount of time I struggled through the physical withdrawal (mostly fatigue) and damage to overall health. I started drinking two years ago after not ever having picked up a drink in my life. It was the grief of divorce that I felt the need to numb. For two years I barely socialized and declined invitations for the most part. I just wanted to be left alone. Now I am feeling more confident and going out and pursuing interests. I lost 20 lbs and fit in my clothes again! My dilemma is what to do with myself while out with friends or dates. I feel so square just drinking tea or water. I feel it puts people on edge as they are drinking. This is my new hurdle to be overcome. Your article inspired me not to give in in these moments thinking that they are rare enough to be considered “moderation”. I don’t want to drink. It is great feeling in control of my thoughts and feelings – and not influenced by some chemical. I like the freedom. Thanks – I now feel committed again. Congratulations to you on your sobriety and best wishes!

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  10. So true. Why is this leaflet in existence? Not sending the right message at all. I cannot believe how much society inadvertently puts pressure on people to continue drinking and view non drinkers as boring weirdos. Like its the worst thing in the world to “stop all together!!” Heaven forbid!! Great article as always Kate xx

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  11. I totally agree. I wouldn’t dream of smoking “in moderation”, so why is it acceptable with alcohol? I haven’t smoked in a year, and I haven’t had a drink in 22 days. I feel so much better, in both mind and body. People need to be encouraged to quit drinking in the same way they’re encouraged to quit smoking. Websites and blogs like yours that address the quitting process and focus on all the positives about sobriety are a tremendous help. Thank you!

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    • Thanks Sarah – and congratulations on your 22 days!

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  12. Thank you for this, it is something I needed to read after trying to moderate for the last few months. I always want more. On the occasions I did stop at 2 drinks, I still wanted more. On the abstinent days, I often wanted to drink.

    I gave quit today forever. Quit previously, the longest period being 6 months.

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  13. This blog post clarified everything for me. You are SO right. It’s actually quite frightening when you consider the amount of lives destroyed by alcohol and yet they still worry more about smoking. Ive got the reasoning I need to pursue my own sobriety now. I’ve even started a blog. Hopefully this will keep me accountable. I don’t want to be another victim.

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  14. Since I quit smoking in 2010 I played the game of moderation for years, not letting too much alcohol sneak on me, using all the tips mentioned in that leaflet of yours. I’d been an adept to binge drinking on my own for many years and felt that, perhaps, I owed myself the chance to try another approach, just to see if my new life as a non-smoker + runner had gifted me with some sense of responsibility. It never worked, needless to say. Drinking is not about responsibility but the opposite. People don’t drink to show how responsible are but to engage in that naughty game of getting more or less pissed and that they call socializing. My last attempts to drink moderately, showed me that I was afraid of quitting the booze and not finding anything else there to replace it. But I found it. It’s called Life, and Love, and Honesty, and Self-respect, and being able to let your imagination and enthusiasm or your need of silence and introspection to take over and lead you to wherever you feel OK. I know very few REAL moderate people. They may spend months without trying a single drop, and when they do it may just be a small glass of wine and they’re able to leave it at that. The rest are caught in that circle of anxiety, always afraid of the effects of too much alcohol. As you suggest, for most people moderation is only a way to delude oneself with the thought that life without alcohol would be uninteresting. The drink industry is backing this idea, that’s for sure.

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