Joe Collier: A drink for Mr Teetotaller?

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