US health police export new attitudes

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Sympathy was running high yesterday for "clinically corpulent" Peter Baker.

The British pro- and anti-alcohol lobbies were united in their condemnation of the US broadcasting company NBC, which allegedly discriminated against Mr Baker, 54, on the grounds that his drinking habits - more than moderate but far from heavy - would interfere "with his crispness of thought".

From the British standpoint, it is clear that Mr Baker is not some sozzled leftover from the heady years of the 1980s, when the four-hour liquid lunch was the norm. Instead, it seems that Mr Baker's drinking is, well, about average for a man of his age in that profession.

Eric Appleby, director of Alcohol Concern, said: "If British companies took that [American] attitude then there would be a very thin workforce. The crucial question is when did he do his drinking."

At the Portman Group, which represents the drink industry, Andrew Chevis said that a large number of people drank more than Mr Baker each day without any detrimental effect on their work.

Certainly there has been a sea-change in attitudes to drink and the workplace since the 1980s but this has less to do with the advance of the "health police" and the arrival of puritanical American companies, than with downsizing and increasing workload. People are not drinking very much less in total - alcohol consumption has fallen just 2 to 3 per cent in the past 10 years - however, they are drinking differently. There is less alcohol during the day and less in the pub, but more at the weekend and at home.

The biggest change has occurred in those professions which were predominantly male, cushioned by expense accounts, and reliant on a certain amount of "entertaining".For example, journalists and printers appear to have been fuelled by alcohol for much of Fleet Street's history. There were many candidates claiming to have inspired Peter Fallow, the drink-sodden British hack immortalised in Tom Wolfe's chronicle of 1980s excess, The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Alan Watkins, political commentator of the Independent on Sunday has fond memories of the 1960s, when the clock struck 12pm and journalists would head for an aperitif and not return from lunch until 4.30pm.The view that alcohol and work don't mix has led to "a decline in journalism and more boring politicians", he opines. He recalls lunches with Denis Healey (a G&T to start), Tony Crossland and Iain Macleod (large dry martinis) followed by a bottle of wine and a glass or two of brandy before the politicians would depart for the Commons and speak brilliantly.

Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor and now diet guru, blames his one- time bottle and a half of wine a day consumption on his previous career as a journalist. However, he maintained that it had no effect on him other than weight gain.

That Mr Baker's consumption of 35 units of alcohol a week - just one more a day that the recommended limit for men - should alarm a US company should not really come as a surprise. Attitudes to alcohol between the two countries are dramatically different: a third of the population in the US is teetotal compared with just 5 per cent or less here. A survey in 1994 found that while 19 per cent of American office workers liked to unwind with a drink, in the UK the figure was 55 per cent.

In his book, Drink: An Informal Social History, Andrew Barr wrote that "authoritative governments have more reason to be afraid of people when they think than when they drink". While American companies prefer the thinkers, here in the UK there is still some sympathy for the drinkers too.

Research: Susan Emmett.