‘You never have to explain why you drink; you always have to explain why you don’t’

Alastair Campbell is committed to lifting alcohol’s hold on us

"If alcohol didn't exist and it was discovered, I don't think there's a government in the world that would allow it," said Alastair Campbell, the former Labour government spin doctor, on a visit to Dublin yesterday. "I know from my own days as a heavy drinker that there's nothing worse than being lectured about it – so change must happen at a societal level, that's what happened with gay rights and racial equality."

In Dublin to promote minimum unit pricing and a ban on sponsorship of sports by alcohol brands, Campbell was invited to speak today to the cross-party Oireachtas group on alcohol misuse, which aims to stop the sale of cheap alcohol in order to reduce the €3.7 billion annual cost of alcohol-related harm.

In denial
"People have a very, very well developed ability to live in denial, both as individuals and as countries," he said. "One of the reasons I campaign is from the perspective of someone who ended up having to admit I had a drink problem and that is the situation our countries are in. You only face up to a problem if you admit there's a problem," he said.

Campbell has written and spoken widely about his own breakdown and psychosis, leading to his arrest, in 1987. This led him on the advice of his psychiatrist to stop drinking alcohol. Subsequently he was diagnosed with clinical depression, which he continues to experience intermittently. He is taking antidepressants after a bad spell in the autumn. “I don’t like to see others spiralling down like I did, because some don’t come back,” he said.

The cross-party group is focusing its efforts on the introduction of minimum unit pricing. In British Columbia, a 10 per cent increase in the minimum price of alcohol resulted in a 32 per cent fall in wholly alcohol-related deaths, Mr Campbell said.

Heavy drinkers
Minimum unit pricing is a "floor price" beneath which alcohol cannot be sold and aims to stop the sale of strong alcohol at pocket-money prices in the off-trade, particularly supermarkets. It is aimed at young people who load up with alcohol before going out and heavy drinkers.


"The normalisation of alcohol across all levels of society is everywhere – Britain and Ireland are very, very hard countries not to drink in. You never have to explain why you drink; you always have to explain why you don't drink," he said. Since leaving his job as former prime minister Tony Blair's director of communications and strategy in 2007, Campbell has campaigned on alcohol and mental health issues. His latest book – My Name Is. . . – is a novel about a teenage girl's descent into alcoholism. "Everybody focuses on the dangers of drugs, but alcohol is going to kill far more people," he said.

In Ireland, 88 deaths a month are directly attributable to alcohol, including one in four deaths of 18- to 35-year-old men. “People who oppose the introduction of minimum pricing say they will pay more for their glass of wine, but you are already paying more – for the police on the streets, the divorce courts, the extra ambulances, the A&E teams,” he said. Each Irish taxpayer pays €3,313 per year towards the cost of alcohol abuse to the exchequer.

"You can say it's not just about minimum unit pricing, it's about a government making a decision. To be fair to Cameron he tried but he was put under huge pressure by the alcohol industry."

Sports sponsorship
Last year, the Irish Government deferred any decision on sports sponsorship. "You only have change if you make change," said Campbell, in a line that would fit a Blair speech from the 1990s.

"Diageo exists to make profit out of the sale of alcohol so they can give money to their shareholders, and nobody is suggesting that become illegal . . . I criticise the politicians who allow themselves to be so influenced by them . . .

“Ireland is going to go for the rugby world cup – you can bet that along the way, the alcohol industry will be saying it can’t happen without them being involved.” A typical soccer match has more than 70 positive allusions to alcohol use when advertising is taken into account, he said. “I don’t buy the idea that sport can’t survive financially without sponsorship [from the alcohol industry]. There is a sense that alcohol is everywhere.

“The normalisation of it has middle-class guys passing the guy drinking cider on a park bench and feeling sorry for them. They don’t realise that guy used to be like them. That guy didn’t make a choice to be that way,” he said.

Campbell will advise Britain’s Labour party in some capacity in the 2015 general election. He is happiest when he is working hard. It’s when he slows down that he is in danger of getting depressed, he said.

Kate Holmquist

Kate Holmquist

The late Kate Holmquist was an Irish Times journalist