Simon Kelner: Nanny state won't stop young people getting lashed

Kelner's view


Here's a sobering thought as you prepare for the working week with joy in your heart and the sun on your back. Yes, as you'll read on the front pages of every newspaper over the next few days, it's hotter here than in Marbella, or the Maldives, or even Mars.

And also you'll have an extra hour of daylight to tend to your garden, or hear the birds sing, or take an evening stroll. On the other hand, you may feel hounded, persecuted and ostracised. If you happen to be a person who likes a drink, you are very much in the Government's – and society's – sights.

In the wake of last week's proposal by the Home Secretary – that, in an effort to curb binge drinking by young people, there should be a minimum price of 40p per unit of alcohol – came the news that doctors will be incentivised to report on their patients' drinking habits.

The thrust behind this initiative is as a prevention-rather-than-cure system for a patient who might, unknowingly, be considered a problem drinker. At face value, I don't really know how this is going to work. In my experience, anyone who's asked by a doctor how much they drink/smoke/eat will underestimate their intake by at least 50 per cent. A doctor friend of mine tells me he always doubles the amount his patient has told him. The truly worrying thing about the new next-to-zero tolerance about alcohol consumption is that you could halve your actual intake and still make it into the at-risk category. "Oh, I don't drink very much, maybe two or three glasses of wine most nights." – "I'm sorry, sir, but you had better come with me for some specialist advice."

According to the Department of Health, this strategy of intervention works, particularly with older, professional people. I have always been rather keen on the nanny state, but I am not sure how effective this method will be with young people, and their evening-out alcoholic triathlon of pre-lash (supermarket-bought vodka, usually), lash itself (pub and club) and post-lash (anything goes, apart from wine).

There is no doubt that, as a nation, we have a drink problem. Drink damages health and can be the cause of social breakdown.

But – believe it or not – we are actually drinking less than we used to, according the latest government statistics. And I think some of the moral panic attached to drinking, which often comes in the shape of newspapers showing pictures of intoxicated, scantily-clad young women, comes from envy – why can't we be young, carefree and having fun any more? – or from snobbery – why can't poor people behave themselves?

To adapt Dylan Thomas's famous epithet that an alcoholic is someone you don't like who drinks as much as you do, perhaps today's problem drinkers are those younger, and not as socially advantaged, as those laying down the rules. Cheers!

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