Health: Going out with a bang

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The Independent Culture
EVERYWHERE YOU look people are writing about the future, so I shall make a prediction of my own. My offering, though undeniably gloomy, is different from most in two respects: I sincerely hope that I am wrong and we will know very soon whether I am right.

I predict that tomorrow night will be remembered not only for its huge, wild parties and uninhibited celebrations - not even for the usual New Year's Eve toll of drunkenness, accidents and violence. I fear that what will distinguish this year from previous year's will be the burns.

Just about everyone I know is expecting fireworks to mark the millennium - to see them, to buy them or to set them off. We all want something to set this midnight hour apart and making as big a bang as possible seems the favoured way of doing it.

Alcohol and fireworks don't mix - as the government reminds us in safety campaigns every year on 5 November. But tomorrow the risks will be a lot higher. Bonfire night is an early evening celebration. By the time revellers are ready at midnight tomorrow to light the blue touchpaper on their "Display in a box" (costs pounds 190) or their four-foot high rocket ("Warning: if not fired vertically, this has the potential to cause injury and damage") will they even be capable of standing up straight?

Some years ago I nearly blew my head off while, somewhat the worse for drink, trying to light a large firework I had bought to mark my father's 70th birthday. Several hours into the party, I emerged in the dark with a torch and matches, looking unsteadily for the half buried launch tube. I found it, lit the fuse, stood back and waited. Nothing happened. I returned to the tube and was trying to re-light the fuse when there was a sudden fizzing.

I just had time to turn my head as the "bomb" whooshed past my ear, exploding 200 feet up into a shower of coloured sparks. I had broken a cardinal rule - never return to a firework that has been lit - because I was drunk.

Last year 830 people were injured in accidents involving fireworks. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, Britain has the worst rate of firework injuries in Europe and the United States.

A survey in Staffordshire found that 80 per cent of those who lit fireworks on 5 November last year, had drunk the equivalent of two to three cans of beer. My guess is that by tomorrow midnight those firing the blue touchpaper will have downed two, three or more times that amount.

Emma Bunton - Baby Spice - is fronting a television campaign sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry urging those who plan to set off fireworks tomorrow to delay their drinking till after the event. I am reminded of King Canute - the intention is admirable but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

If the injury toll is high, ministers can expect hard questions to be asked.

I hope my prediction is wrong and Britain's burns specialists have a quiet start to the century. But fireworks and drink make for a lethal combination. If you plan to use both to see in the New Year, do take care they are not the last things you see.