Stop British students boozing – for their sake and all of ours

It's time for us to stop thinking that being drunk is socially acceptable

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The Independent Online

Britain is hooked on booze and – like other addicts – refuses to acknowledge the problem or seek help. Joyful celebrations, times of loss and pain are drinking occasions, as if true feelings stirred up by birthdays, weddings or funerals would be intolerable and must be numbed down.

More seriously still, for millions of citizens young and old, tipple – lots of it – is an essential part of everyday living. The much-missed Liberal Democrat MP Charles Kennedy lost his battle against alcohol addiction and died three months ago. This weekend his grieving partner, Carole Macdonald, said socialising in the Palace of Westminster where booze is subsidised contributed to his decline and death. Our law-makers don’t take alcoholism seriously because too many of them drink too much and think it is perfectly normal to do so.   

OK, so alcohol is part of the culture in northern European nations and some Mediterranean countries. But, while wine intake in southern Europe has been decreasing, the amount of beers and spirits imbibed by northern Europeans has gone up. Binge drinking is much higher in Poland and the UK than, say, Portugal. Students are among these binge drinkers. (See the comparative research published by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.)

In the past 30 years, hedonism has swept away traditional drinking habits, tied to custom and reasonable opening times. There was drunkenness in the past, but there was some shame too.

Not today. Great Britain is unstoppably Bacchanalian. New Labour showed no concern for the health and safety of the nation when it deregulated pubs. (Cigarette manufacturers have been sued for the harm they caused. Why not governments?) Sajid Javid, the usually aloof Business Secretary, has just announced a very welcome inquiry into the “lad culture” at universities.

For too long it has been assumed that uni is a place to get pissed and laid whether you want to or not. An NUS survey reported that almost two-thirds of female students said they had been groped, assaulted or pestered by male colleagues.

Last weekend, Hannah Stubbs, a 22-year-old student, committed suicide after she was allegedly raped by a fellow student. Most such crimes are unreported. One hopes the inquiry will examine the part played by alcohol in these violations. Research into date rape shows that, though spiked drinks are a growing peril, alcohol is the biggest danger. Some 75 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women had been drinking before non-consensual or forced sex took place.

A 1999 US study found that 35 per cent of medical students had experienced memory impairment and/or blackouts after drinking. These symptoms are more prevalent among those in higher education – young people who will define the future of the nation.

Excessive drink wounds and kills. It despoils our streets, disfigures universities and is strangling the NHS. It burdens the criminal justice system, wrecks families, communities and localities and is a curse on those who consume the demon liquid and are consumed by it. In A&E departments almost 23 per cent of cases are drink-related. Over half of all victims of violence in the UK say their attackers were affected by alcohol. The pressures in all hospitals rise during weekends because people do not drink sensibly. It can’t go on.

This week the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs declared in a bizarre report that drinkers pay billions of pounds more than they take out of the welfare state, including the NHS. Really? What about the mental health of family members and how much that costs? Family breakdown and the health consequences that flow from that? Or domestic violence? Or the cost to those who have to wait longer for treatment? I thought free marketers were good at maths. The charge sheet against alcohol would fill volumes. All classes across Britain are afflicted and don’t want to admit to their problem. It’s just a big laugh – those champagne-swilling ladies in Ab Fab, Al Murray, the pub landlord, The Nag’s Head in Only Fools and Horses, endless gags. I was up in Edinburgh and at the comedy shows jokes about getting drunk had them in stitches. Have one more, snort and titter. That’s what life is for.

Forgive me if this sounds like a sermon from a mad mullah, but it is the harsh and terrible reality. In fact, alcoholism is a hidden problem among Muslims and other Asians. My only brother and a cousin were drunks. Both were uncontrollable when intoxicated. My cousin’s wife had her arms broken and eye nearly poked out by the man she loved. I have livid marks on my arms, reminders of brutal assaults. My Sikh friend has had a breakdown after years of trying to turn round her alcoholic son.

There is some good news. Freshers’ week has been an initiation rite where incomers are expected to show off and join in with uncontrolled (cheap) boozing and bad behaviour. Now, it seems, more students abstain, avoid the madness. They are paying good money for their education and take it more seriously. The NUS has started to promote sane and reasonable drinking, while foreign students refuse to comply with the distasteful behaviours. Students are redefining university and its ethos, shaming the authorities that should have stepped in. Schools and universities should have a zero-tolerance policy on unrestrained drinking and public disorder.

It is time for uncompromising action in other public and private institutions too. Laws against smoking have irreversibly shifted attitudes. The same drive is needed for alcohol consumption. The police, magistrates and judges must insist on rehab for alcoholics as they do for drug addiction. And finally, while the NHS must care for those already addicted, it needs to get tougher on those who won’t stop drinking till they are blotto. Inform their employers or the benefits office. Show them there is no such thing as a free bed. Shifting a culture is not easy but it can be done.