The current popular cause of angst for the Daily Mail reading classes seems to be binge drinking, a subject that raised its slightly bleary head again yesterday.
Apparently the government has announced a tougher code of practice on drinking, which is described in the Times as “a government retreat from its policy of liberalising licensing laws” – namely the introduction of 24 hour drinking brought about in November 2005.
Now, I am not about to declare that all of this worry is unfounded. The Times prints some rather worrying statistics, including a 69% increase in hospital admissions due to drink related disorders; a five-fold increase in mortality from liver disease in the under-65s at a time when every other major cause of death has dropped; and a cost to the NHS of £2.7Bn per year. However, I would like to see the hysteria calm down a little to allow a more grown-up debate.
A number of things occur to me, in no particular order, just off the top of my head:
1. Is the definition of binge-drinking really helpful? Binge drinking is defined as consuming at least twice the daily recommended amount of alcohol in a single drinking session. That sounds bad, but you have to bear in mind that the daily recommended amount of alcohol is only about two pints of weak beer. Excluding tee-totalers, who would really consider 4 pints an outrageously intemperate night’s drinking?
2. The article in the Times is accompanied by a picture of a young lady, clearly much the worse for wear through drink, lying half comatose in the snow. Her parents are probably so proud they have framed it. However, the point is, how much of this hysteria is due to the fact that (shock, horror) women are now getting drunk too, not just us male oiks. If the issue is one of sexism, fine, but be man (OR woman!) enough to admit it.
3. The Times article also says that the new code of practice is “an admission that reforms allowing 24-hour drinking have failed to produce what the former minister Hazel Blears described as a “continental café-bar culture.” Really? Personally I think this was possibly the most sensible piece of legislation to come out of this government, but do we really expect such a deep-seated national cultural problem to be overcome in a single generation, much less than in under 5 years.
4. Pubs and clubs are going to be faced with fines or jail if he have offers and promotions on alcohol, but no action is going to be taken on supermarket pricing. Does this not sound like a bit of a mixed message? Is it going to stop the problem or just worsen it whilst driving it into the home, killing the pub and the social aspect of drinking?
5. The main problem, as frequently bemoaned on the doom-mongering news broadcasts, is youth drinking. It was always thus, but in my day this was achieved through cheap cider. At least you knew where you were with cider, even if that was face down in a gutter, and you had to really acquire the taste to appreciate beer. Now-a-days, however, with the bewildering array of day-glo drinks that taste more like pop than booze, you can easily misjudge how much you drink and there is no such need to acquire the taste – you can go straight from Ribena to WKD without batting an eye-lid.
So, to sum up my thoughts, should Gordon Brown be reading this (you never know!):
1. Women drink too, get used to it.
2. Tackle the drinking problem, but bench-mark the problem at a sensible level, not 4 pints of beer on a Saturday night. Maybe we’ll then take you more seriously.
3. Address the problem of drinks marketed specifically at kids.
4. If you’re imposing bans on promotions be consistent and don’t penalise pubs who are struggling enough as it is
5. Where alcohol abuse really is a problem through violence etc, come down hard, but lighten up and leave the rest of us alone.
This is a real problem for us drinkers – remember what happened to smoking. As a non-smoker I was delighted to see smoking banned in public places, but it sets a dangerous precedent and, as I mentioned in a previous post, this government seems determined to kill the pub and I really don’t want to see that happen.