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This graph (Wellcome Library no. 689465i) is one of the latest works to enter the Wellcome Library catalogue. Unexciting to look at, perhaps, despite its outlandish subject. It combines two graphs in one: the top half shows new admissions of alcoholics at twenty-three Swiss cantonal lunatic asylums between 1908 and 1928, and the bottom half shows fluctuations in the price of fruit brandy in Switzerland over the same period. So during the First World War, the price of fruit brandy rose like the Matterhorn and the percentage of alcoholics among those entering cantonal lunatic asylums collapsed. Fruit brandy (non-grape brandy, Schnaps or Schnapps) is presumably mentioned owing to the use of much of the fruit grown in Switzerland for that purpose. As shown in the two examples below, the support of fruit-growers always seems to be prominent in earlier Swiss anti-alcohol campaigns, long before drunken driving became the theme of choice.
The graph (to return to that) looked strangely familiar. The reason was, that the British media in January 2010 were awash with discussion of a report on the same subject issued by the House of Commons Health Committee, bluntly entitled Alcohol. Appropriately, the report was released just before Christmas 2009.
The House of Commons Committee took evidence from four historians who have published on different aspects of the history of drinking and intoxication: Dr James Kneale (UCL), Dr Angela McShane (Royal College of Art/V&A Museum), Dr James Nicholls (Bath Spa University) and Dr Phil Withington (University of Cambridge). Their presence shows the strength of the tradition of cultural and social history in the UK. Their work informs chapter 2 of the report, which deals with the history of alcohol in the UK from 1550, and puts the recent increases in consumption into context by emphasizing “the huge decline in consumption from the late 19th century to the mid-twentieth, and its subsequent rise”. One of the historians who gave evidence to the Committee also pointed out that there was a long history of British select committees examining the problems associated with alcohol.
A point much taken up by the media has been the association between consumption of alcohol and price: the Committee recommended both the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol and an increase in the rates of duty. The effect of low pricing was stressed by the President of the Royal College of Physicians (Professor Ian Gilmore, a high-profile opponent of excessive drinking). Several graphs in the report make similar points to those in the Swiss poster, though without trying to match price against side-effect in the same graph. This one shows the decline in the relative price of alcohol:
The effect on liver disease was mentioned over 60 times in the report and illustrated in this alarming graph:
In the 1929 Swiss poster, and others in the same series in the Wellcome Library, liver disease is not mentioned, and one might doubt whether a statistic for it would have been obtainable at that time. In the 2009 UK report, admissions to psychiatric services are not prominent. In the interval, clinical pathology services and statistics have increased while psychiatric hospitals have closed and the inpatient in general has become a relative rarity (unless the aged are accounted as such). Alcohol stays the same but the culture changes around it. Hence the relevance of historians who are not mere chroniclers of a single subject but are able to weave rich social and intellectual contexts around, and into the fabric of, a subject.
Also striking is the willingness of the Swiss publishers in 1929 to put a graph on a poster. Most designers today would be horrified, which may say more about designers than about the relative efficiency of graphs as against other forms of exposition.
Another poster from the same period (above) provides a better topical comparison, in that it conforms more with the taste of today’s advertising industry. It shows a Swiss farmer bringing home a herd of 25,000 cattle, which meander through a vast Alpine valley. The value of the herd is the same as the annual cost of alcoholism to the Swiss Confederation. The composition (attributed to the Bernese artist Viktor Surbek) is certainly vivid, and the message could well be effective in a country where people have both a sense of responsibility to their local Commune and a feeling for how much a cow costs. But probably neither of those two criteria applies to the student binge-drinkers attending the “Carnage UK” events described in the House of Commons Committee report.
For further comment see the blog of the BBC’s Home Editor Mark Easton, and the reactions to the report published there. For entertainment of a rather cruel kind, the grilling of the drinks industry’s PR people by members of the committee is hard to beat: the MPs reprint it verbatim in their report.
Author: William Schupbach