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Joe Collier: A drink for Mr Teetotaller?

21 Sep, 09 | by BMJ

Professor Joe CollierTwo things are certain. First, I am a teetotaller. Second, UK society (in common with society in Europe generally) is awash with the influence of alcohol. If ever there were a risk of a clash of interests, this is one.

I am a teetotaller, and in my 67 years won’t have drunk more than the equivalent of a litre of wine. More will have crept in as alcohol in food or through inhaling alcohol from perfumes, etc, but essentially I am an alcohol-free zone. I am not religious and have no medical “contraindications,” I simply do not like the flavour of alcoholic drinks and have chosen not to be peer-pressured nor otherwise compelled to acquire the taste. Accordingly, I have no experience of “driving under the influence,” of being tipsy, let alone drunk, nor of having a hangover.

Alcohol, for its part, is omnipresent, is part of our everyday currency, and its use is woven into the culture of our society. When one is asked “Would you like a drink?” the question refers to alcohol. To be “drunk” refers to a state of alcohol excess. If you want to give someone a tip you might slip the person a fiver and say “Buy yourself a drink,” and in France, where things are more explicit, the word for a tip is actually a “pourboire” (a “for a drink”), and for a bribe, a “pot-de-vin” (a “bottle of wine”).

But things do not stop at language. Alcohol lubricates social interactions. When people want to be sociable they will often meet “for a drink” (of alcohol). When they want to resolve a disagreement or clinch a deal, they might do so “over a drink” (of alcohol). When one goes to friends for a meal it is usual to take alcohol (a bottle of wine) as a gift. Once in the house, the host soon offers a glass of wine. Inevitably there will then be wine served during the meal, and later possibly port or cognac. Finally, an overnight houseguest may be offered a “toddy before retiring.”

Alcohol is also used as a prop for calibrating success (“this is worth opening a bottle of champagne!”), to wish someone or something well (“raise your glasses to”), or to seal an important event such as a naming ceremony (when a ship is launched it is unimaginable that some dignitary wouldn’t smash a bottle against its bow). And in the sporting world, alcohol is used to allow competitors to bathe in success – just watch how the Formula 1 winner sprays, or is sprayed, with “bubbly.”

Finally, and bizarrely, alcohol is used as a right of passage to adulthood. Telling of last night’s “bender,” coming to college with a hangover, describing the more unsavoury events of a “pub crawl,” or being able to drink umpteen pints of beer in an hour without collapsing (the capacity to “hold drink” is a classical challenge among some students), are all the stuff of bravado and greeted by peers with a certain sense of admiration.

How does all this affect me? For the most part, society’s obsession with, or even possible dependence on, alcohol is no more than part of a background hum. At a functional level I give bottles of alcohol as presents, I add alcohol when cooking if the recipe demands, and at home I am responsible for selecting and stocking our wine cellar. With regards to usage by others, I like the fact that alcohol provides people with a drink that tastes nice (and for some wines extraordinarily so), and vicariously share with drinkers their pleasure in (sensible) partaking. What bugs me, however, is how society so often tries to paint me as someone with something wrong, as an object of suspicion, as an outsider ripe for enquiry. As a teetotaller, I regularly have to explain why I don’t drink. Ten minutes at a dinner party can be spent defending my position. I often feel that if I were to say that I was either a reformed alcoholic, or taking a medicine that interacts with alcohol or was a devout muslim, these would satisfy. Not having a “legitimate” reason for abstaining seems worrying. Perhaps, they conjecture, I am mad, or frightened, or even a Puritan. Anyhow, how can I be so relaxed in company without a drink; how do I celebrate success with colleagues without champagne? There must be some explanation over and above the taste. For some, the problem lingers and the hope is expressed that one day I might “get better” (note how abstaining here is an illness!) or come to my senses one day (“do you still not drink” was a common goad of my mother in law!).

Whatever I say there might well be demands for me to drink anyway. “Go on, try some, it won’t do you any harm”; “it’s an acquired taste so give it a whirl,” “fill your glass and have a sip, how can we all enjoy toasting someone if you don’t join in?” and so on. Somehow if I don’t drink I will spoil the atmosphere for others. Finally, I am somehow expected to have sympathy for those who have overindulged. Of this I have none.

It is clear that UK society at large has a need for alcohol and that this need has a very long history. How necessary it is to fulfil this need cannot easily be assessed, but a UK without alcohol is unimaginable. For my part, and as an individual, I prefer to live without alcohol, and seem to manage OK. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, but the unrelenting drive by the alcohol sector to undermine, alienate or even demonise teetotallers does not make sense. Could it be that we teetotallers represent some sort of threat, a challenge to a way of life that now passes for normal and in which some can see no alternative?

Joe Collier is emeritus professor of medicines policy at St George’s, University of London

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  • Dr John Corish

    I’m sorry but you have not defined ‘alcohol sector’ very clearly. Precisely to whom are you referring? Your essay seems to suggest that you have your non-teetotaller friends, colleagues and mother-in-law in mind. Is this the case?

  • http://jcollier@sgul.ac.uk joe collier

    Dr Corish, 1) I certainly have some friends who are teetotallers but that is not the basis for our friendship, and amomgst my friends, teetotallers make up a very small minority 2) The ‘alcohol sector’ covers those who drink or sell/promote alcohol. Joe Collier

  • Dr Ellen Grant

    Professor Collier is right. The reaction to refusing an alcoholic drink is very strange and repeated at every visit to neighbours or even friends. Huge tumblers of warm tap water are handed out making it obvious who is not drinking wine like everyone else. Is it a form of punishment? I tell my preconception fathers-to-be with dodgy sperm to pretend they are now drinking vodka!

  • Dr John Corish

    Well, Dr Collier, as a member of the ‘alcohol sector’ (as defined by you) I reject out of hand your suggestion that I am part of an “unrelenting drive” to “undermine, demonise or even alienate” people who do not drink alcohol. Your statement is silly and I suggest you withdraw it.

  • http://www.pauapress.com Bruce Spittle

    I applaud Professor Collier for his stance and am in a similar position after 64 years. I felt that to reduce the harm that the use of alcohol causes for society it was best to shift the Ledermann curve to the left and encourage living without alcohol.

  • julietwalker

    I agree with Professor Collier. I am not teetotal, but I drink little and rarely. I find it hugely irritating that people feel the need to ask me why I am not drinking. I am often made to feel like I am a bore, or spoiling the party for everyone else. But I don’t understand why it matters. I don’t judge what other people drink, or pass comment on it, so why should my drinking choices be singled out and scrutinised?

  • Dr John Corish

    Juliet Walker, you agree with Dr. Collier despite the fact that he regards you – an occasional drinker – as part of the ‘alcohol sector’? Puzzling.

  • Dr Lina Martino

    Dr Corish, I too agree with Professor Collier despite also being part of the ‘alcohol sector’ (I’m of Mediterranean descent and have enjoyed the occasional glass of wine since I was still a relatively small child). Nevertheless, as a vegetarian who wants to repeatedly beat with a stick the next person who tries to tell me that we are ‘meant’ to eat meat, I can wholly identify with the sense of pressure to justify one’s dietary choices.

    Yes, part of it is that some people are uncomfortable with anything other than their own norms, but sometimes it’s slightly more sinister. Rightly or wrongly, choices such as alcohol abstinence and vegetarianism are regarded as ‘healthier’ options – therefore, in questioning the validity of these options, people are justifying their own choices. Anyone who has ever been on a diet will have had someone try to shove a cream cake at them, and this is no different. (I’m a non-militant veggie by the way – I just wish the militant non-veggies would let me enjoy my food in peace).

  • Dylan Flaws

    As a fellow teetotaler, I too have found myself searching at the back of the drinks menu for the minimal selection of non-alcoholic beverages.

    I propose that the pressure Professor Collier is describing is a simple sociological reaction of the majority to the minority. If one was to wear a top-hat to a baseball cap convention, it is sure to be a topic of conversation.

    As Dr. Martino identified, a similar reaction is elicited by vegetarianism. There are various other examples in human history; some with awful consequences.

    As we are all minorities in some aspect of life, and majorities in some other, I feel we could all learn to adopt a certain degree tolerance of the esoteric choices of others.

  • Mike Troup

    I used to enjoy the taste of alcohol but not the effects – I gradually reduced my intake but have now been teetotal for 7 years, and feel much better for it – better sleep, no headaches etc. I do not enjoy the company of drinkers – they are loud and disinhibited and lack insight into their behaviour – I hope I wasn’t too much like them! Very worrying is that the average adult drinks enough to put him or herself over the drink drive limit every day! How can that be good for society’s health, in the broadest sense.

  • Bob Roberts

    Does anyone fancy a pint?

  • Janice Manesby

    I am far from a teetotaler and certainly an avid member of the ‘alcohol sector’ (and also an enthusiastic meat-eater if Dr Lina Martino happens to be reading). Having said this however, I am in total agreement with Professor Collier. I am always surprised when someone doesn’t drink and I think it is this surprise that drives me nearly every time to ask the question, “why?!” I think alcohol is one of lifes true pleasures and feel that people that don’t drink are really missing out on something and this is what drives me to ask the question. It is not that I want to demonise or alienate them in any way, far to the cotrary in fact. I want to invite them into the fold with great prejudice. Also if the alcohol industry wanted to demonise and alienate them then why would they make alcohol free beers and wines?

    I would just like to add that looking back at a previous blog of Professor Collier’s about defending being unsociable. Maybe if he had a drink he would find himself less so? For me this is truly one of the great benefits of having a nice glass of wine or two. He would say he doesn’t need it, but how does he know?

  • Yolo

    I am thinking about becoming a teetotaller and I think this artilce is excellent. In my opinion it all seems very true. I am really not looking forward to the comments, the questions, or giving an explanation as to why I no longer participate in the consuption of alcohol. How do you deal with all that?

  • Madeleine

    I think that this article very eloquently expresses some of the typical experiences of a teetotaller. As a teenager who does not drink, I am very much in the minority – one who does not drink is often considered anti-social – and as a result, a known teetotaller is unlikely to recieve many invitations to parties, amongst other social events. I can only hope that the ‘culture’ in which drinking is a popular past-time can evolve into one which is altogether more sophisticated. This might reduce the sheer volume of alcohol-related illnesses and injuries, but I feel that it may take some time.

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  • dpayne

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    13/09/2010.

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