The BMA is right: we should ban all booze ads

Anyone doubting the effects of encouraging teens to binge-drink need only look around for evidence
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The Independent Online

When Richard Markham bludgeoned his friend Tristian Lovelock to death with a claw-hammer last year, cutting up his body, roasting his arm in an oven, distributing his head and other body parts around a local housing estate and leaving his torso in a front room with a bayonet sticking out of it, there had apparently been various extenuating circumstances. His childhood had been unhappy, a court was told this week. He was acting in self-defence after his drinking buddy had threatened him with the bayonet.

Oh, and both of them were somewhat the worse for wear at the time - in fact, things had started to go a bit pear-shaped from the moment the two of them had embarked upon an all-day drinking contest at their local pub earlier in the day.

Whether the death of Mr Lovelock will be recorded among the 28,000 deaths indirectly caused by alcohol every year - a fact revealed in this year's conference of the British Medical Association - seems open to doubt. Rather more certain is that the BMA's recommendation for all advertising for alcoholic drinks to be banned will be dismissed as alarmist and illiberal.

Already a Mr Quentin Rappoport of the Wine and Spirit Association has stepped forward to describe the conference resolution as "out of touch" and "a bit stupid".

It is, needless to say, neither of those things. Doctors are in a better position than most people, and certainly in a better position than a director of the Wine and Spirit Association, to see the effects of alcohol on the way the British live and die. They have noticed that, while their surgeries are as cluttered as ever with old and middle-aged soaks (over 4,000 people die of alcoholism in the UK every year), a new trend has developed: people in their twenties and thirties are suffering from liver damage caused by long-term binge drinking.

Getting drunk - that is, not tipsy nor merry but blind, mad, off-your-face, throwing-up bluttered - has always been a somewhat embarrassing rite of passage for the young. Now, thanks to the assiduous and eager attentions of the alcohol industry, it has become so fashionable that it is almost obligatory. Getting pie-eyed, the propaganda goes, is an essential part of living life to the full.

It is perhaps not surprising that few people, apart from doctors and the odd parent, seem worried by this development. After all, as a culture, we take a generally warm-hearted and approving attitude towards alcohol. While tobacco is the great demon of the age and soft drugs are the subject of casual misinformation and dodgy statistics, booze is presented as an old friend, a short cut to being a more amusing, individualistic, interesting and sexy person. Would the Queen Mother have been a cosy grandmother to the nation if, instead of drinking gin to excess, she was popping pills or shooting up? Could Jeffrey Bernard have become the star of The Spectator and the West End if he had been a junkie rather than an alcoholic?

No one, least of all a libertarian boozer like myself, would argue for prohibition, but surely the BMA is right to note that there is something unsettling in the way the drinks industry, its advertisers and various lazy-minded TV producers regularly target consumers who are young and easy to influence. When you are in your teens, you long to be funny, attractive and sexually successful, so that is the way the poisonous myth about alcohol is peddled, not only in advertisements but in documentaries, drama and even on reality shows.

Anyone doubting the effects of encouraging people in their teens and twenties towards binge-drinking needs only to look around for evidence. On those oddly compelling TV programmes that show the police at work, there will be invariably be scenes in which youngish, violent men and their crazed, abusive girlfriends battle drunkenly with each other as they emerge from pubs or clubs. In the part of the country where I live, the local market town is now so riven by booze-fuelled fights and break-ins that police are obliged to patrol the town in twos and threes every Friday and Saturday night.

It may suit the drinks industry to characterise anyone who voices concern about this development as being out of touch or stupid, but you do not have to subscribe to the old Methodist belief that all alcohol is "the devil in solution" to see something immoral in the way booze is now promoted. If the Government's much-bruited campaign against anti-social behaviour is to have any meaning beyond sucking up to the middle-aged and middle-class, it should follow the BMA's advice and ban all forms of advertising for alcoholic drinks.

There are few instances where the private behaviour of citizens requires legislation, but the relentless, harmful exploitation of the young and vulnerable by the rich and unscrupulous requires a swift, hard smack from the nanny state.