Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Enough with the booze already

The Today programme this morning did a piece on alcohol consumption. The Secretary of State for Health is, reportedly, going to be using 'nudge' techniques in an attempt to tackle the UK's drinking culture. Statistics abound on the scale of the problem, with billions of pounds being spent on coping with the direct health consequences, billions more being spent on dealing with all the alcohol-related crime, and - apparently - around 20 million UK residents routinely drinking more than the recommended sensible weekly limit (and 2.5 million drinking more than double that limit). That's a lot of mashed lives.

The BBC's correspondent explained that tackling the supply side (through, for example, establishing minimum prices per unit of alcohol) was 'easy', but tackling the demand side was more difficult.


Then the BBC turned to Kit Malthouse, deputy Mayor of London, who has apparently fallen in love with a scheme originating in South Dakota (hotbed, as we all know, of cutting edge solutions for twenty first century urban life) in which individuals convicted of alcohol-related offences are put on 'enforced sobriety' programmes rather than being sent to jail. Individuals on the programme have to present themselves for blood testing twice a day: pass the test, and they can carry on doing whatever it is they do; fail the test, and get thrown in the slammer.

Finally, in terms of the morning's connections, the august Institute for Government, new leaders in the behaviour change arena on the back of their tremendous MINDSPACE report, are soon to hold an event focusing directly on the question of alcohol consumption. I'm guessing that the Institute's findings will help Andrew Lansley work out what he means.

I'm both excited and worried by all this. Excited, because (a) alcohol consumption really is a major individual and social problem that needs to be tackled, and (b) the techniques of behaviour change have the potential to make a genuine positive difference.

I'm worried because I think that there is a risk of superficiality. By focusing on 'binge drinking', or the 20% of the population that account for 80% of the problem, and by thinking about alcohol in isolation, the whole thing will be treated as a standalone problem requiring specific alcohol-related interventions aimed at particular types of individual.

In reality, virtually all adults drink alcohol - and alcohol is just one of a number of tools that people use to 'escape' whatever it is they're running away from. In general terms, alcohol is in a set with recreational drugs, television, shopping and foreign holidays: these are all devices for 'getting away' from - from what? The stress and strains and discontents of everyday life? The existential crisis at the centre of the human condition? It strikes me that if day-to-day life weren't quite so crap for people, they probably wouldn't need to get quite so out of it quite so often.

So the question turns into: how deep do we need to go? How deep are we willing to go? What if the answer to the alcohol problem is not, in fact, incarcerating or demonising or offering CBT to drunk people but, rather, re-engineering work, reducing stressful commuting, helping people to develop autonomous control over their lives and promoting self-actualisation?

Friday, 22 October 2010

I've been meaning to write but...

As all good behavioural economists know, habit is a hard nut to crack. I got into the habit of thinking: I'll write that blog post tomorrow. And, suddenly, six months had gone by.

In the world of the multi-web, this is the equivalent of having become extinct and then re-evolving seven million years later. Even in the real world a good deal seems to have happened.

In the domain of enough, it would be a waste of effort to attempt any synopsis or synthesis of external events: suitable summaries I'm sure abound. Instead, I want to spend a few moments on a couple of things that didn't happen:

  • There has not been a resurgence of consumer spending in the UK. There are still millions of people spending billions of pounds on stuff they don't really need, to be sure, and the government is still desperately hoping that sometime soon there'll be a recovery on the high street to rescue us from the 'brink', but weird signs are popping up here and there. I encountered reference to a paper reportedly circulating among Europe's car manufacturing companies that is wondering what to do about the fact that young people have fallen out of love with the car as a status symbol.
  • I personally have not bought: a television, a radio, a new hi-fi, a new suit, a new briefcase or a new phone. I have not bought several shirts, several pairs of shoes and several new pairs of trousers. I have not been on an aeroplane, nor have I bought any furniture, carpets or heavy textiles.
That's not enough, of course, there's plenty of others things that I could have not done, and there's plenty of things that didn't happen that would have been good if they had, but I wanted to get off on an optimistic footing.

I noticed that The Guardian's G2 supplement this week had a piece on 'things to do for free'. This is all well and good as part of coping with austerity and all that, but HAVE THEY ANY IDEA WHAT'LL HAPPEN IF THAT SORT OF THING BECAME A WIDESPREAD HABIT?