Jane Bradley: You can still enjoy the pub without a drink

With many initiatives designed to encourage people to abandon alcohol for weeks at a time, pubs are feeling the effects as friends decide to avoid going out altogether instead of socialising over a lighter refreshment. Picture: PA
With many initiatives designed to encourage people to abandon alcohol for weeks at a time, pubs are feeling the effects as friends decide to avoid going out altogether instead of socialising over a lighter refreshment. Picture: PA
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As landlords are crippled by the likes of Dry January, friends should still enjoy a soft drink at the pub, writes Jane Bradley

Pubs are still closing at a rate of seven a week in Scotland, landlords are struggling to cope with the latest blow in a long line of setbacks for their industry. The problem? People are just not drinking – in the way they used to, at least.

Alcohol has become the new smoking – a bodily evil rivalled only by sugar, which also, by chance, happens to be a major component of alcohol. A double whammy of poison, indeed.

Government advice recently warned we should all cut down to less than 14 units of alcohol a week, while over the past couple of years charity Alcohol Concern has successfully transformed fundraising drive Dry January into a nationwide New Year phenomenon. Around two million people in the UK are expected to have given up booze this month. But what is hitting the pub industry particularly hard is that they are not only eschewing the hard stuff, they are simply not going out.

Local pubs told me that regulars sign themselves out of their favourite haunt for a month to partake in Dry January. And off they disappear, to resurface only in February – leaving the pub scrabbling around for profit.

Instead, the pubs claim, they could have kept coming, kept socialising with their friends – just drunk soft drinks rather than beer. And for many people, cutting back on alcohol has become a way of life rather than a month-long challenge.

A few months ago (before Dry January proper set in), a friend announced on social media that she was going to give up alcohol for a month in aid of a charity she supports – and tagged a group of friends asking them to join her.

The responses, mainly from 30-something women, were surprising. Almost all refused to join her – not because they were against helping her charity of choice, but because they claimed that they hardly drink alcohol (or were completely teetotal), making the idea of being sponsored to give up something they rarely touched seemed somewhat futile.

While on one hand the alcohol boom of the 30 and 40-something middle class is getting out of hand – we all know people who crack open a bottle of wine (or two or three) every night as soon as the kids are in bed – there is undoubtedly a rising tide of non-drinkers.

People who would have previously had one or two are now not drinking at all due to the stringent alcohol laws. Others are on long-term health kicks.

Even at the extreme end of the scale, you can clearly see the trend. Alcohol-related hospital admissions have dropped by 22 per cent since the 2007-8 peak, according to the latest Scottish Government figures published in December.

I am not speaking as a hardened drinker. Far from it, I am one of these reborn temperance types. The arrival of my daughter, combined with a minor health problem which makes heavy drinking less than sensible, means I have rarely had more than a single glass of wine or a small beer on a night out in more than four years. But I still like going to the pub.

Others I know have given up as they have got older. The hangovers have become harder. They have small people waking them up at 7am every day, no matter what time they stagger home or how many pints they consume.

They want to go for a dawn run. It’s just not worth it any more.

But why people cannot go to a pub without drinking alcohol is beyond me – and beyond the licensed trade.

In Europe, bars and cafes are one in the same. It is just as common to enjoy an espresso as a glass of wine or pint of beer – equally, during the day, a small glass of red never goes amiss. Just not here.

A few years ago, I went to a yoga class at a local school gym with a group of friends. As the world’s most unbendy and least relaxed person, I hate yoga. I’d only agreed to go because I’d thought it was a social thing. A chance to catch up with my friends. At the time, we were all juggling small babies and rarely got the chance to finish a sentence before a nappy needed changing or one or other of the infants needed feeding. Surely the evening yoga class was just an excuse for a natter and a bit of time to ourselves. Wasn’t it?

But after the class, we gathered outside. “Right,” I said. “Which pub are we going to?” It was like I’d suggested we send our year-old babies on a whisky tasting tour.

“Pub?” asked my most yoga-loving friend, usually a perfectly sane human being. “We can’t go to a pub, we’ve just done yoga!” She paused.

“Maybe next time, we could bring a flask of green tea and see if there’s an empty classroom we could sit in for half an hour after the class?”

I was horrified, but she was unmovable.

What confused me most was why we couldn’t have gone to a pub to drink said green tea (I might have opted for an espresso), sitting in comfortable surroundings which didn’t include a whiteboard. Granted, we would have had to pay for it, but a couple of quid wasn’t beyond any of our budgets.

But to my friend, a pub, even the civilised gastropub-type things near the yoga class, was a den of alcoholic iniquity, not something to be mixed with yoga. And she is not the only one who thinks this way.

Discussing the issue with my colleagues, a bunch of hard-drinking journalists, they were astounded that anyone would think of going near a pub if they weren’t planning to get seriously intoxicated.

One claimed that if he wasn’t going to drink beer, he would just invite his friends round to his house instead – before admitting that his friends hadn’t stepped over the threshold of his home in decades.

Instead, they all agreed, they would prefer to stay at home – alone – rather than go to a pub and not drink. Makes a life with no alcohol seem even more bleak.

In short, there is a serious mental block in Scotland when it comes to public houses and non-alcoholic beverages – one which the industry desperately needs to overcome if it is to survive in these troubled times.

And one which would do us all good to overcome, both for our physical health – and our social wellbeing.