Booze: Britain's Real Drug

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When a teenager dies after taking Ecstasy it's front page news. The Government now warns us of a new heroin epidemic. But a far more deadly and acceptable substance is freely available at a bar, restaurant or supermarket near you

I walked into the smoke-filled room and breathed a sigh of relief. It was obvious that I could get what I was looking for. Scoring is never difficult in places like this and it was obvious that I could not only get my drug of choice, but I could get it in any combination I desired. The dealers were polite enough, and even offered to bring it over to the table. I remembered the first time I had indulged. It used to make me sick, but over the years I had built up a tolerance. Anyway, this was a drug I could handle; it made me feel better, more sociable; gave me a bit of a glow.

I don't have a habit. Of course not. What I do is entirely legal. My name is Suzanne and I am not an alcoholic. I just like a drink now and again. A lot of us do, and a lot of us are drinking far more than ever before. A lot more of us are dying as a result of it, but you wouldn't know that from reading the headlines of the last few days.

Illegal drugs are always far more newsworthy than legal ones and last week has not been a good week for the parents of teenage children. I sat watching the news with my teenage daughter while we were told that the country is on the brink of a second heroin epidemic. Heroin, like any other commodity with an image problem, has now been successfully rebranded. Freed from its association with dirty, middle-aged junkies, it is now offered to teenagers, even middle-class ones, in pounds 5 wraps as a chill-out drug. The Police Research Group said "The Nineties have been dominated by the extensive use of drugs, like cannabis, amphetamines, and ecstasy, particularly by youth populations".

The newsreader solemnly informed us of the signs of a teenage heroin user. They become listless, unresponsive and glassy-eyed and spend a lot of time in their rooms. "Are you a heroin addict?" I asked my daughter, because as far as I can see these are merely the symptoms of adolescence. She made that noise that teenagers make when they consider their parents to be an utter embarrassment, and went up to her room.

By the middle of the week, however, the death of 18-year-old Julia Dawes had reminded us that other drugs besides heroin kill our children. "Ecstasy kills teenage fitness teacher" was the front-page headline of the Daily Mail. Of course, this was a tragedy. The death of any 18-year-old is a tragedy. But what I found also tragic was that we appear to have learnt nothing, even though this particular drug has been widely used for the last 10 years. The way that this case was reported revealed the confusion and hypocrisy that strangles at birth any sensible debate about drugs. Julia Dawes should not have died. She was good-looking; her parents went to church; she had everything going for her. She was not a member of the under-class. She did not live on a sink estate. What is more, she was a fitness instructor who cared about her body. How then did she come to take this drug? Predictably, someone has to pay, and four people have been arrested on charges of supplying her with it.

The reports reminded us too of another "innocent" Leah Betts. She shouldn't have died either and her face became the face of a campaign to persuade other youngsters not to take Ecstasy. Leah Betts became what the writer Andrew O'Hagan called "the patron saint of ignorance". That may offend some people, yet the campaign waged in her named has been, however you want to measure it, a failure. It has not deterred people her age from taking Ecstasy because in their experience you don't die and their experience is that a hell of a lot of people take it every weekend and live to tell the tale. If clubbers are using less Ecstasy than they were a few years ago, it is not because they have been frightened off but because the quality of the drug has deteriorated.

"We find it hard to believe that Julia would have been involved with drugs in any way" said a friend of the family. We have been down this path before and it leads only to dead ends. Richard Benson wrote in 1996 in The Face, a magazine that does not find it hard to believe that nice girls like Leah and Julia may use drugs "We walk now in a veiled land....". The veil he was referring to was the veil that exists between a world in which drugs are common place, part of a youth culture and a world in which denies or demonises their use. The death of Leah Betts proved how near and yet how far these worlds are from one another. As Benson wrote "On the night she took Ecstasy ... she was sitting in her Mums and Dad's living room having a birthday party while they sat in the kitchen. When the veil was lifted, it was found that the veiled and unveiled worlds were not merely close to one another. They were the same". Six teenagers have died after taking ecstasy in the past 10 years; 55 after drinking too much alcohol. But could you tell which was the bigger danger, from reading newspapers? The world regards them differently. The TV star Caroline Aherne admitted, after leaving a private clinic, that she was an alcoholic. Her treatment cost her pounds 17,000, but she said it saved her life. Aherne's case was reported sympathetically. We like Mrs Merton and know she has had a hard time lately. Her "confession" meant that she joined the expanding cast list of celebrity alcoholics. A few days earlier Kevin Kennedy, who plays Curly Watts in Coronation Street, had held a press conference at which he detailed his drink problem. He was promoted to face up to his addiction after Kevin Lloyd, Tosh in The Bill, drank himself to death in May. Three days before Lloyd died he had told a friend: "I can't stop drinking now. I know it's killing me."

Many lesser known boozers drink themselves to death. They are the real alcoholics anonymous. We don't know where they are. We only know that most of them certainly cannot afford to spend time recovering in private clinics. Our image of alcoholism is muddled to say the least, veering as it does between the bruised and battered winos we see gathered on park benches, and glamorous stars such as Liz Taylor and the model Paula Hamilton who bravely battle in public to stay clean and sober.

Ordinary alcoholism and the misery it causes is not something we pay much attention to. Perhaps it is too close to home. After all, alcohol is everywhere, and within our everyday experience. This is not some weird killer drug. It is our sanctified social lubricant. It is simply what we do, and just because some poor sods do it too much, doesn't mean that the rest of us shouldn't do it at all.

Politicians do not say much about alcohol. How can they? Huge amounts of revenue are raised in form of tax on drink. Anyway, alcohol is central to political culture. The bars of the House of Commons are full of those who, like many of us, drink to relax, drink because there is nothing better to do, drink in order to feel part of whatever it is that is going on. Edwina Currie once told me that when she first entered the House she was surprised to find that you spent most of the day not really drunk but not really sober either. So she stopped drinking.

Yet the moral panic about drugs and the youth population, and the Government's refusal to talk sensibly about drugs policy, mean that we are not confronting what is really dangerous for our kids. Smoking, more than any other drug, kills, but smoking does not cause antisocial behaviour. Those who smoke know the risks they are taking. They are unlikely, because of their nasty habit, to cause death and destruction to anyone other than themselves. Drinking on the other hand, has massive repercussions for the whole of society, as Dr Abraham of the Medical Council on Alcoholism has said: "Alcohol diseases are hidden because alcohol is a legal drug. The social consequences (ie actions) of tobacco are minimal. In alcohol they're massive - crime, violence, accidents, divorce, family feuds."

Addiction to alcohol wreaks havoc. Drunk drivers kill people; drunks start fights. The lagered-up lads of the market towns who start mini-riots every Saturday night would be less inclined to do so without alcohol. Much domestic violence and child abuse can be linked to the consumption of alcohol. Families are torn apart by this drug. Many of those we see sleeping in our streets have alcohol-related problems. All this happens far away from the Betty Ford clinic and the psycho-babble of the reformed celebrity drinker. It is horribly commonplace.

Deaths from alcohol-related diseases have increased by more than a third in the last 10 years. Between 1984 and 1994 the number of deaths from alcoholic liver disease doubled in those aged between 15 and 44. All trends show that young people, especially young women, are drinking more and are beginning to drink earlier. Last year the Health Authority published figures that showed that three-quarters of all 11-year-olds had tried alcohol. One survey found that some 12-year-olds were drinking as much as 15 whiskies in a session.

Perhaps because alcohol is everywhere and freely available as part of mainstream culture, we would prefer to worry about other intoxicants that we believe may harm our children. Yet even a cursory glance at the statistics shows that we may be getting things out of proportion. Figures vary, but it is estimated that over 5,000 deaths a year in England and Wales are directly related to alcohol. Compare this with deaths from other drugs. Although the figures are rising, in the whole of the United Kingdom in 1995, the total deaths from heroin were 319. In the same year, the number of deaths directly attributable to ecstasy were six. Even this week, with the predictable scaremongering that followed Julia Dawes's death, experts estimated that though 1.5 million young people are taking ecstasy every week, the death toll this year is unlikely to be more than 20.

Statistics may be meaningless when faced with the loss of a vibrant child, but nonetheless we cannot afford to become so mired in hypocrisy that we exaggerate the risks of illegal drugs and gloss over the risks of legal ones. We know from all the evidence that prohibition does not work. While the Government pursues variants of the Just Say No campaign, drug agencies have moved on to a Just Say Know approach, trying to give drug users information about the substances they are taking. If we are going to drink, then we need not only to inform ourselves of the risks, but also to be clearer about the signs of addiction. We need to recognise when social drinking spills over into something more problematic.

Those who drink know that alcohol can be immensely pleasurable - one of life's joys. Those who take drugs know the same thing. Sometimes, though, it gets ugly. Indeed, rave culture grew up partly as a reaction to the aggression and out-of-control laddishness of drink culture. I find it astonishing that the Government, headed by people in their early forties, can continue to perpetuate the myth of two separate cultures even when faced with the drug use of their own children. Those children may know that the drugs their parents consume legally may be ultimately more life- threatening and socially devastating than the illegal ones that they prefer, but can we honestly say that the rest of us are as well informed?