Terence Blacker: A nation in denial about its attitude to booze

While other drugs have become the focus of social pressure, alcohol remains essentially cool
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The Independent Online

The week's prize for a prophetic voice crying in the wilderness should go to Dr Gray Smith-Laing of the Medway Maritime Hospital. A calm, urbane man whose job includes treating those who are killing themselves with alcohol, the doctor appeared on Paul Watson's extraordinary documentary Rain in My Heart, and then as an interviewee on Newsnight.

Dr Smith-Laing's message was bleak and all the more powerful for the neutral tone in which it was delivered. Booze has an increasing number of Britons - particularly young Britons - in its grip. The crisis to the nation's health is getting worse year on year. "Everything we do here is too late," he said. "We've missed the boat."

There has been some hand-wringing in the wake of the documentary. A smooth talker from the drinks industry expressed to Jeremy Paxman his sincere concern that people should be sensible in their drinking habits, but soon, as the great yuletide binge kicks in, all will be forgotten and booze will once more be its usual, heart-warming self. It is, after all, in our bloodstream.

Those who checked into Dr Smith-Laing's ward with the effects of alcohol poisoning, present or past, had certainly missed the boat - two of the four subjects of the documentary died during filming and the prognosis is gloomy for the other two - but it was clear he had broader message. There is something fundamentally askew in the British attitude to drinking.

It is a rather daring thing to say, being awkwardly at odds with the way we like to look at the question of drinking. While other drugs, notably nicotine, have become the focus of legislative and social pressure, aimed particularly at those in their teens and twenties, alcohol remains inviolate, essentially cool.

So articles and documentaries, littered by the usual code-words - "addiction", "binge-drinking", "drink-driving" - are somehow disconnected from the normal, everyday thing most of us do. It is true that programmes like Paul Watson's may cause a stab of concern and sympathy but our discomfort is eased by the knowledge that his four patients were victims and losers, people who had their own miserable reasons for looking at the world through the bottom of a bottle.

When earlier this week, a survey of 4,500 adults revealed what they regarded as threats to their health, alcohol hardly registered. Lack of sleep or exercise, or perhaps an excess of stress, were regarded as the true dangers of modern life. Even the statistics fail to dent booze's rosy image. 70 per cent of A&E admissions on Friday and Saturday nights involve those who have been drinking, as do 80 per cent of pedestrian road deaths.

In fact, there are more than 20,000 alcohol-related deaths every year, and alcoholics are getting younger all the time. A member of the Royal College of Physicians is quoted in this week's New Statesman as saying that "deaths from liver disease have doubled in the past 10 years, and the people I am seeing are getting younger".

Under normal circumstances, it would seem to be downright perverse that the drinks industry is able at this moment to take advantage of the dawning of a new golden age of round-the-clock drinking and promote the joy of alcohol to the young, but that is exactly what has happened. The Government, in thrall as ever to economic concerns, has adopted the same profoundly hypocritical approach as it has applied to gambling: while letting big business off the leash, it has also expressed its deep concern that those with problems should be helped in every way possible.

Taking its cue from Westminster, the profoundly cynical drinks industry mouths platitudes about "responsible drinking" while opening bars for "vertical drinking" - the fewer the tables, chairs and flat surfaces there are, the faster the punters drink, it has been discovered - and offering bonuses to bar managers who can maximise their profits.

There is a reason why alcohol has been allowed to develop this useful double image - a problem for others, but a joy and a pleasure for the rest of us. Britain has always had a cosy relationship with the bottle. Whereas a famous person with a drug problem will be seen as a sad and seedy addict, celebrity alcoholics, from Jeffrey Bernard, Oliver Reed and George Best onwards, have their own special place in the heart of the nation. No jolly gaffe or blooper is more likely to appear on a TV compilation show than the appearance of star, hilariously sozzled, on a chat show.

Perhaps this weakness for a loveable drunk is part of our cultural heritage - no one, after all, seriously argued that W C Fields or Dean Martin were boring, self-destructive addicts; their every burp and hiccup was treasured. But now big business is doing its worst, the government is utterly ineffective, and a new generation is being weaned on to the bottle with deadly consequences. It is time we started listening to people like Dr Smith-Laing.