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Is alcoholism a problem among bartenders?

The murky issue of alcoholism in the on-trade is nothing short of contentious, but is over-consumption still an issue among today’s professional bartenders?

Despite the dramatic increase in the professional image of bartenders, we ask whether the industry still battles with over-consumption

With a role dedicated to the business of consumption, it’s not difficult to see why bartenders often find themselves typified by a somewhat hedonistic image.

Over the years, mounting attention has been paid to the exploits of members of the on-trade, both behind and in front of the bar. While the media and general public might view bartenders as both party initiators and goers, with an insatiable taste for excess, others claim the on-trade has largely succeeded in shedding its low-rent image as it continues to grow in prestige across the globe.

But questions continue to abound over whether the industry has a significant problem with over-consumption and, in extreme cases, alcoholism. Is the archetypal image of the party-hard bartender outdated and in need of reassessment, or is the on-trade turning a blind eye to its “dark side”? Opinion in the sector is clearly divided.

Professionalism in the industry
For Claire Smith, head of spirits creation and mixology at Belvedere Vodka, “Professionalism now defines the industry. I think there’s a really dated perspective about the on-trade, and the idea of a bartender being wasted behind the bar just doesn’t cut it anymore.”

The thought that unfair representations of bartenders pervade the mainstream is reiterated loudly throughout the industry.
“There seems to be a new maturity in the industry,” claims Iain Griffiths, operations director at London bar White Lyan. “These days, bartenders are so aspirational. They aren’t content just working behind a bar anymore. They want to set up their own companies, become brand ambassadors or write, and to do this, they have to lead healthy lifestyles.”

According to Shervene Shahbazkhani, Bacardi Rum’s UK brand ambassador, who works extensively with bartenders in the country, the amount of alcohol readily available in the on-trade does not make excess more likely; it in fact means bartenders are “more discerning” drinkers.

bartender alcoholism
A number of charities recognise the “hazardous” effects of bartenders’ drinking habits

Grave effects

“While people who aren’t used to being around such large quantities of alcohol may be tempted to over-consume, bartenders often become desensitised,” she said. “There’s still some binge drinking but it’s certainly much different to what it used to be – the drinks industry has started to take a good look at itself.”

But beyond any reputational damage habitual drinking behind the bar might cause, could the effects on a bartender’s health be all the more grave?

In 2011, Business Insider magazine reported that bartenders were the most likely professional group to die from alcohol abuse in the US. Looking at death certificates of white American males compiled by the

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the publication concluded that bartenders were 2.33 times more likely to die from alcohol-related issues than the average.

NIOSH recorded 294 alcohol-related deaths among 8,361 white males. Business Insider also noted that among white American women, bartenders were also the most likely professional group to die from alcohol abuse.

“Hazardous” drinking in the industry

The Licensed Trade Charity’s Support & Care arm, which seeks to support trade members through emotional and financial support, claims to “recognise the issue of hazardous drinking across the industry, which is a real concern”.

Kath Gill, head of Support & Care, says: “Independent research has shown that more publicans and bar staff suffer from cirrhosis and other alcohol-related health problems than people in other jobs. For many people, working in pubs is a lifestyle choice and not just a job, but with that comes the risk of alcohol dependency.”

Another UK charity, Hospitality Action, similarly acknowledges a prevalence of alcohol dependency among the hospitality sector, including the on-trade, claiming that as much as 15% of the industry suffers with alcohol or drug dependency, compared with a 9% UK average.

“We believe that the hospitality industry is particularly prone to alcohol and drug abuse,” says Penny Moore, CEO of the organisation. “This is definitely just as much of a problem now as it ever was.
“Employers are becoming more responsible with regards to their policies, but excessive consumption remains the same. It’s too easy to turn a blind eye to this and something more needs to be done.”

Belvedere vodka launched a bootcamp to educate bartenders on leading healthy lifestyles

Initiatives battle consumption
A bold statement, but how? For some, the responsibility to limit excessive consumption among bartenders sits at a legislative level, while for others, brands and general managers should step up to the plate to promote healthy lifestyles and curb drinking on the job – a controversial point which divides opinion in the industry.

Katarina Mazaniova, bartender at London’s 34, told The Spirits Business last year: “I understand that resisting drinking behind the bar is not easy, but I’ve heard bartenders say all too often that drinking is an essential part of their job.

“This image seems to have permeated into the public consciousness and my GP has even asked me if I would consider joining AA meetings just because I said I was a bartender.”
Various initiatives have been embarked upon to curtail this behaviour at a general management level, but spirits brands are now increasingly acknowledging responsibility towards the on-trade. In September last year, LVMH launched the Belvedere Better Boot Camp, which saw 15 bartenders take part in a two-week schedule of exercise, meditation and alcohol abstinence. The event was the brainchild of Claire Smith, who says: “Brands are now heavily investing in cocktail festivals and competitions, so we have a responsibility to make sure we portray a positive and healthy message to bartenders.

Bartender bootcamp

“I launched the Belvedere Better Boot Camp because I wanted to run a brand trip that wasn’t centred around getting wasted – the aim was to try and mitigate any unhealthy lifestyle habits the participating bartenders might have without being sanctimonious.”

However, despite these efforts to shed light on the harms of unhealthy consumption, it seems “alcoholism” is still a dirty word in the industry and most are loathe to refer to the disease directly. The sensitivity of its core topic is tangible. While the “tragedies” of the “dark side of the industry” are often alluded to, excessive consumption among bartenders remains a cloudy issue.

There also appeared to be demonstrable research gaps on the issue. The UK’s responsible drinking charity Drinkaware claimed not to have any relevant data on consumption habits among bartenders, while it was similarly not something other charities and organisations had extensively looked into. Thus, while excessive consumption is old news for some in the industry, further discussions are needed to shed light on what is still a taboo subject.

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