Myths of alcoholism and the middle class

27. February 2012 03:57

I've been trying not to use the word 'alcoholic' for some time now. At one point in our history of understanding alcohol problems it was a step forward. Identifying a 'disease' allows people to stop blaming themselves for an addictive behaviour and do something about it.

But there is no scientific basis for a disease called alcoholism, and that's been one reason for the medical profession taking up whole population approaches to alcohol-related harm, as well as a slide back towards the moralism that came before 'alcoholism'.

Enough isms. What I really wanted to do was to make a few remarks about last week's Panorama, in which Tony Blair's former spin doctor Alastair Campbell looked at Britain's Hidden Alcoholics.*

Ironically, Campbell is living proof that alcoholism is a myth. He's a recovering alcoholic who is able to continue drinking moderately without getting into difficulties, as a large proportion of 'alcoholics' are able to do.

Another thing in his favour is that he's sceptical of the attention focused on binge-drinking young working class people rather than the deeper issue of those with chronic drink problems, the 'hidden alcoholics' of the title.

For Campbell, this is a problem of the middle classes, fuelled by the growth of wine in the UK and hidden by their ability to function at quite a high level – until some crisis is reached, at any rate.

We meet several people of this sort in the show, articulate, educated people who have an understanding of their predicament and are trying to deal with it. Good for them.

I'm sorry to tell Campbell, though, that they are the lucky ones.

If you look at the statistics on alcohol consumption by how rich you are, the wealthiest fifth of the population do indeed drink slightly more than the poorest fifth. Yet the poorest fifth are six or seven times more likely to die an alcohol-related death than the wealthiest fifth.

This is because dying of drink is over determined by other factors such as depression, obesity, nutrition and social conditions in general. It would be reasonable to say that it's not the alcohol that kills poor people, it's the poverty.

Of course, middle class people die, too. But they have a much better chance of survival. And it explains, too, why they are better at 'functioning'. They also present well on television documentaries.

Meanwhile, most hidden alcoholics remain hidden.

*Available on BBC iPlayer until March 4:


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About the author

Phil Mellows

Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist and writer specialising in the UK pub industry and alcohol policy. For more information, and the Politics of Drinking blog, go to
You can also follow Phil on Twitter at

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