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Durham Constabulary's Chief Constable Mike Barton talks Dry January

Posted 28/02/14

“It’s a great advantage not to drink among hard drinking people.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Popular culture representations would have us believe many police officers like to round off a hard day’s work with a good, strong drink. For Inspector Rebus it’s Laphroaig in Edinburgh’s Oxford Bar, and for countless others, including Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, it’s whatever they can get their hands on.

But is this really true of modern, real-life police officers, coping with the stresses of every day police work in 2014? Of course not. We all know that the caricatures displayed on British TV and in Hollywood films are just that. But giving up alcohol entirely for a whole month? Surely that’s takes strength of fictional proportions?

Not so, according to Durham Constabulary’s Chief Constable, Mike Barton, who just completed Dry January. So, just what possessed him?

“Someone caught me in a moment of weakness sometime around October when January seemed a long time away and I decided to give it a go” he replies, candidly. “No, all joking aside, alcohol is a scourge on our communities and I wanted to promote the great work that Balance, the North East Alcohol Office, does to address that.

“I also accepted that I was probably drinking more than is good for me and I wanted to test myself. I’m not exactly known for abstaining, in fact my family consider me somewhat of a party animal, and I don’t like to deny myself anything; so this was a good opportunity to see if I could.

“I’m not the kind of person to deal with stress by drinking, for me it’s far more of a social lubricant. I enjoy a decent steak and a lot of Italian food, which goes so well with a nice glass of red.

“So, while not a heavy drinker by any stretch, I did think it might be hard to break certain habits I’d developed over many years but I needn’t have worried. I got into a new habit and replaced my pint of beer at my local with a lime and soda or a cup of tea, and I even developed quite a taste for mocktails! Darlington Borough Council organised a dry pub crawl which I attended and that really opened my eyes to a far wider range of drinks.

“My birthday is in January so I did wonder if that might be hard to get through, but I had some Elderflower fizz to celebrate and it wasn’t a problem. Although I did some additional celebrating in February just to properly mark it….

“I’ve lost a bit of weight through cutting out alcohol and this has worked for me in the past – I didn’t drink for a few weeks before my son’s wedding and my once tight suit was certainly looser as a result. What I found remarkable though was that I didn’t feel that different, which reassured me that I don’t have a drink problem. Although I’ve always been a good sleeper I do feel fresher after not drinking.

“Before under-taking this challenge I wondered how other people would react and how those reactions would impact on me – would I be embarrassed to order a soft drink at my local? Would I have to rely on excuses of old, like ‘I’m driving’ or ‘I’m on tablets’ – but I really think that attitudes have changed. There was a lot of awareness of the Dry January campaign and everyone I mentioned it to was very supportive.

“Taking part in Dry January really brought it home to me how ready we are to celebrate with alcohol. The drinks industry has been very skilful in suggesting that the way to mark something important is to pop a cork and there are bars in so many social settings. Alcohol has become the social norm and Dry January has provided a timely reminder that this needs to change. Alcohol is a Group 1 carcinogen, its presence in so many aspects of our culture is very concerning.

“As police officers, we see the damaging effects of people drinking alcohol on a daily basis. I have spent the last 34 years mopping up after people who have had several too many and after 9pm the majority of people arrested in my jurisdiction have drunk too much, including those involved in domestic violence.

“The on-licence traders in County Durham and Darlington are really helping us to fight this, with many supporting our dry pub crawl and numerous measures put in place to encourage responsible drinking. But the same cannot be said about many of the supermarkets in our area, particularly in the centre of Durham city.

“The way these supermarkets flog outrageously cheap alcohol to students is extremely concerning. I see groups of young people coming out of city centre supermarkets with trays full of alcohol that they take home and consume, then return to town completely intoxicated and head to pubs and clubs. I’d never heard of the concept of ‘pre-loading’ until recently but we’re certainly dealing with the effects of it regularly now.

“And drinking so heavily can really change a personality – from straight-laced academic student to violent, obnoxious fight-starter and back again, with shame, humiliation and regret thrown in.

“I honestly believe that one of the best ways to tackle this is for the Government to adopt a minimum unit price for alcohol, which would reduce the ability of young people to consume so much. Currently, supermarkets are able to easily abuse the appeal of cheap drink and they sell it cheaper and cheaper and stack it higher and higher. It’s the first thing you see when you walk into most supermarkets and the fact remains that it’s a poison.

“I’m no puritan but when children and young people are faced with this sort of promotion how can they not grow up thinking alcohol is a normal part of every-day life? And if they do start drinking at an early age we should be very concerned about the effect this has on them – their liver can’t metabolise alcohol and they can’t always perceive risk, which can make them very vulnerable. Measures need to be taken now to stop this continuing.

“Alcohol exacerbates the negative elements of any situation and I have been pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to have a month off from it. I’ve personally recalibrated what is good for my health and increased my awareness of the damaging role alcohol plays in our culture and society.”

So, will he be drinking less in future?

“I definitely intend to, much to the disdain of certain colleagues who have not too subtly suggested that I’m becoming boring without alcohol……..”

And will he take part in Dry January again next year?

“Let me sleep on that!”

We’re sure you’ll do so soundly Mr. Barton.