Joan Smith: The real cost of booze is rising fast

The existence of a widely acknowledged social problem, accompanied by a scandalised rejection of measures designed to tackle it, is an example of cognitive dissonance

Share
Related Topics

Just about everyone claims to dislike Britain's binge-drinking culture. People complain bitterly about the state of our town centres on weekend nights as young people spill out of pubs and clubs, barely able to stand; they sympathise with the police, who have to deploy officers to deal with drunken disorder when they could more profitably be used elsewhere; they shake their heads over the waste of NHS resources as A&E departments struggle to cope with patients who are there solely because they've consumed huge quantities of alcohol.

It's widely believed that the British, unlike the French, have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Supermarkets are full of cheap booze, bars lure passers-by inside with "happy hours" and our drinking culture is loutish and competitive. It's all dreadful and somebody should do something about it – but that's where the agreement ends. Firm proposals to reduce alcohol consumption, such as those published yesterday by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), are generally greeted with scepticism and even outrage.

Nice is advocating a minimum price for alcohol, an advertising ban like the one imposed some years ago on tobacco products, and better screening for drink problems in the general population. The latter proposal means GPs taking the extraordinary step of asking patients about their drinking habits, an idea which has been greeted as though it's a massive and distasteful invasion of privacy. (Do it, I say. And ask them about their weight while you're at it.)

The existence of a widely acknowledged social problem, accompanied by a scandalised rejection of measures designed to tackle it, is evidence of cognitive dissonance. Public attitudes to drinking in the UK are confused, irrational and mixed up with other factors such as celebrity and class. The public disapproves of alcoholism in general but is willing to make endless excuses for individuals such as the late George Best, who was romanticised even as his life was visibly being destroyed by drink. Then there's the grudging admiration in some quarters for men (though not women) who continue to consume "heroic" amounts of booze in defiance of advice from their doctors.

There is a semi-excuse for this: anyone over the age of 40 grew up thinking that half a bottle of wine with dinner each night qualified as "moderate" consumption, so it's a shock to look at up-to-date tables which show how small a single unit actually is. You don't have to drink seven pints a night to have a drink problem; a couple of large glasses of wine each evening adds up to several dozen units per week, way above "safe" limits for both men and women. Recent medical knowledge requires a mostly unwelcome adjustment on the part of social drinkers who want to stay healthy; some individuals have cut back – women know more these days about the link between unsafe drinking and breast cancer – but the cultural norm is still to drink more than doctors recommend.

That makes it easy for sceptics to dismiss any attempt to tackle binge-drinking on the grounds that the medical establishment is much too cautious in its approach to alcohol. Why should "moderate" or "sensible" drinkers be affected by measures which clearly ought to be targeted on young people who regularly drink themselves legless? It's true that the Nice recommendations would make booze more expensive for everyone; the panel didn't recommend a minimum price but worked on an example of 50p per unit, which would raise the price of a two-litre bottle of cider to £7.50, and a 500ml can of lager to £1.14. But there is an element of targeting here, since higher prices have the biggest impact on the heaviest drinkers and on young people, who spend a relatively high proportion of their income on alcohol. If the rest of us cut down as well, that would bring more health benefits, as well as reducing the cost to the NHS of drink-related illness.

People who complain about the "nanny state" ignore the fact that alcoholism and other lifestyle conditions, such as obesity, place a huge burden on taxpayers. According to Professor Mike Kelly, Nice's public health director, excessive drinking costs the NHS £2bn each year and leads to half a million crimes, 17 million lost working days, 1.2 million violent incidents and just under 15,000 alcohol-related deaths. I'm not as a rule in favour of banning things, whether we're talking about recreational drugs, tobacco or alcohol, but the social and financial cost of alcohol-related illness is a powerful argument for greater regulation.

The biggest obstacle to bringing that about is surely denial. Most people think the problem relates to strangers, whether it happens to be kids on a night out – almost exclusively girls, judging by the photographs chosen to illustrate articles on the phenomenon – or some shabbily-dressed blokes sharing a park bench and several bottles of cider. They're the ones who need to be brought under control, not the upper-middle-class youths whose evenings end (as Bullingdon Club feasts are said to have done) in damaged property and flights from the police. Upper-middle-class drinking is less visible and more readily excused, whereas working-class drinking habits – booze cruises, supermarket trolleys packed with cans of lager – are harder to overlook.

Booze undoubtedly plays a role in other problems, such as domestic violence, but some Labour MPs shy away from minimum-pricing because they see it as an imposition on their working-class constituents. The same people opposed the ban on smoking in public places, as though poor people's lives are so resistant to improvement that they have to be allowed to smoke and drink themselves to death. Such counsels of despair are even more depressing than the proposition that the answer to our drink problem is to "change the culture", one of those lovely ideas that has not yet been achieved – the UK isn't France – and isn't likely to be.

Cultural change is often most effectively brought about by legislation. Thirty years ago, people didn't think twice about drink-driving but a crack-down by the police has got even some of the worst offenders out of the habit. Our cheap-booze culture didn't come about by accident, and it's no good just trying to wish it away. If we want our friends, relatives and complete strangers to drink sensibly, the answer is tough but simple: regulate.

www.politicalblonde.net

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Multi-skilled graphic designer ...

Austen Lloyd: Court of Protection Solicitor

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: Court of Protection Solic...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The demise of a Sixties monster

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
A CCTV camera is seen in front of a large poster opposite in central London  

Home Office is creating more powers to turn everyone into suspects – but leave us no safer

Shami Chakrabarti
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?