Editor-At-Large: Only a price rise will stop Britain's booze culture

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The Independent Online

Why are politicians so feeble about tackling alcohol abuse? Last week the Tories and Labour presented their big plans to deal with the crisis that's costing the NHS millions, and turning our city centres into horrible places you avoid at all costs. The Chief Constable of Nottingham, Julia Hodson, knows the reality only too well. After spending a night touring pubs, bars and an accident and emergency department in Nottingham, she called for an end to the sale of cheap booze, and said binge drinking was depriving young women of their dignity.

In this phoney booze war politicians have plenty of policies, but they're toothless. The Tories want to levy a charge on late-night off-licences and bars and say they'll tax "problem" drinks such as alcopops, strong beers and ciders. Labour promises to ban promotions offering cheap booze and say pubs should offer free tap water. Talk about not facing up to the gruesome reality. Iain Duncan Smith is the only leading Tory to advocate increasing the price of alcohol, to fund treatment for its abuse. The Lib Dems remain the only party to back a minimum price per unit of alcohol, and a ban on advertising and sponsorship.

The drinks industry, and their persuasive lobby organisation, the Portman Group, are so powerful that relatively sane politicians like the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, now make the ludicrous claim that fixing the price of drink will unfairly affect those on low incomes. Talk about a warped view of liberty – the freedom of choice for a generation of young men and women to wreck their health at rock-bottom prices.

Ranged against the Portman Group and their paymasters are all this country's leading medical bodies. Those who want minimum pricing and a ban on advertising include the British Medical Association, the Chief Medical Officer for England, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and the Royal Society for Public Health. The Portman Group says that abuse is about individuals, not society at large. It claims to promote social responsibility in the drinks industry. But the controls that have been imposed to ensure that advertising does not target the young and impressionable are regularly being flouted. Binge drinking is seen as socially acceptable, even desirable. So much for responsibility.

All an advertising code does is make manufacturers more creative. The Government spends £17.6m on advertising and education about the dangers of excessive alcohol, while the industry splashes out £600m-£800m in flogging it.

In Scotland, where the average adult consumption is estimated at 46 bottles of vodka or 130 bottles of wine a year, Parliament is actively considering minimum pricing. Labour and the Tories seem too scared of alienating their core voters in England and Wales.

The British Medical Journal reckons the real price of alcohol has fallen by 70 per cent since 1980, and is only 11p a unit in some supermarkets. Has any other commodity with the capacity to cause serious harm become so cheap and so readily available?

A Sheffield University study concluded that minimum pricing would reduce alcohol-related deaths by 3,400 and hospital admissions by 100,000 annually – and still politicians dither.

Meanwhile, all the evidence indicates that manufacturers are targeting teenagers, despite the advertising code stipulating that no one under 25 (or who looks under 25) can appear in an ad. Laughable, really.

A Stirling University report found that manufacturers used market research data on 15-and 16-year-olds to inform their advertising campaigns. The code states specifically that advertising should not target the young or suggest that drinking makes you attractive or socially acceptable. Nevertheless, Lambrini sponsored Coleen Rooney's TV show when she was only 23, and ran a contest for the girl with "Britain's sexiest legs". Carling offered free beer at breakfast at pop festivals.

The Stirling team wants no billboard advertising within 100 metres of a school, a 9pm watershed for TV ads and a limit on booze promotion on university and college campuses. Fat chance. Education has failed. Self-control is hopeless. The Lib Dems are right: minimum pricing and an advertising ban are logical. But very unlikely.

Show-off Who cares about Sarah's pals?

I once went to the National Television Awards and found myself among women wearing what looked like their underwear, posing non-stop for photographers. Never again! I felt 20 years too old and five dress sizes too big for that kind of mindless charade. So what was the Prime Minister's wife doing there last week? Sarah Brown presented an award and appealed for the victims of the Haiti earthquake, but why did she stick around like a star-struck teenager, making sure she was snapped with everyone from Arlene Phillips to telly's top Barbie dolls, Dannii and Cheryl? Even more worrying, she couldn't wait to tweet about the whole experience, and posted pictures of herself hobnobbing with the stars online. The battle for Westminster's top twitterer has been joined by the Speaker's wife, Sally Bercow, who revealed she uses old copies of Hansard as a step to help her small children reach the loo, and issues bulletins every time a mouse runs through her kitchen. Is this the "equality" women fought for – the right to tell other women the mind-numbing banality of their daily lives?

Our sick deserve a healthier diet

While a new survey claims that 94.5 per cent of hospitals served excellent or very good food, official statistics reveal that although 175,000 patients were admitted to NHS hospitals suffering from malnutrition or an eating disorder, 10,000 more were discharged with the same condition.

For years the Government has promised to improve the disgusting swill served to patients, and yet the complaints still come flooding in. Age Concern points out that two-thirds of beds are occupied by elderly patients who don't get enough help feeding themselves at meal-times, and so they starve.

Making sure the sick are well nourished is a pretty basic necessity of any health care provider. How can we get it so wrong?

Spoilt for choice – and by it

It's official: too much choice makes us depressed and anxious. An American academic wrote a controversial book on the subject a couple of years ago, and now psychologists at Stanford University have confirmed that as the range of options for middle-class Westerners has increased, so have our feelings of uncertainty and depression. Remember when buying anything from a pair of jeans to a can of baked beans was just so simple? We're now confronted with too much variety – and most of what's on offer is exactly the same, just packaged differently. In other cultures, choice is not valued so highly, but we seem to have pursued the notion that the more alternatives on offer the better. It's reached a level which is not only meaningless, but also very time-consuming. We select friends, our jobs and whether to stay in touch with our families – and the result is that many of us end up more isolated than previous generations.

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