When it first came on the news the other day I heard the author of the Chief Medical Officer's annual report not as Dame Sally Davies but as Sammy Davis. Now that would have been interesting. Let the rat pack have a go at it, that's what I say.
Unsurprisingly, in the hands of Dame Sally, drink comes in for some attention, and not in a rat pack way. She's right, of course, to be concerned about the rising incidence of liver disease in the UK and right to link it to the increase in alcohol consumption until 2004, though obesity and hepatitis C need to come into a complicated equation, too.
Anyway, without getting into that, one sentence jumped out at me: “Drinking to excess is not 'normal behaviour'”. This is strange language from a Chief Medical Officer. What does she mean by 'normal'? It's a heavily value-laden term that, in my view, is best avoided. In this case Davies is implicitly labelling people who drink to excess as 'abnormal'. How is that going to help?
She's bothered about the portrayal of drinking in popular culture, where “negative consequences are rarely shown”. Then she notes it's there in Shakespeare, too, the popular culture of its time. I don't know about you, but if something's been going on for 400 years that sounds like a pretty good definition of 'normal' to me. It's part of popular culture's job to reflect... um... popular culture, where people do actually drink to excess, mostly with no more terrible consequence than a headache the next morning.
Getting your characters drunk also offers rich narrative benefits, giving the plot a kick in an unlikely direction or triggering conflict between characters – one of the negatives you do frequently see on the telly.
And, of course, it's a matter of much heated debate whether people copy what they see. Davies is here expressing a social norms theory, which assumes that, sheep-like, we conform to what we believe others are doing. There are some of us here, though, who are inclined to do completely the opposite to what everyone else does, and I'm not sure anyone wants to be Norman Normal.
What's really going on here is a struggle over something slightly different – ‘normalisation’. There is an argument that drinking, and drinking to excess, is becoming normalised and we've got to stop it. But surely by any definition drinking has been a 'normal' activity in this country for centuries. If anything, what we're seeing is an effort, by Dame Sally Davies and others, to de-normalise it. It sounds better, though, if they put it the other way round.
Personally, I've always thought we need a more mature relationship with alcohol. And that means accepting that people drink, and might get drunk.