A nation in need of rehab, not more drink

Snobbery and self delusion have obscured the fact that profligate drinking is a problem across the board
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The Independent Online

The highlight of the schedule on cable network Bravo TV last week was Booze Britain.Bravo TV showcases the flotsam and jetsam of life, just for a laugh, and this programme followed a gang of young blokes in identical T-shirts which proudly proclaimed them to be "Top Drinkers".

The highlight of the schedule on cable network Bravo TV last week was Booze Britain.Bravo TV showcases the flotsam and jetsam of life, just for a laugh, and this programme followed a gang of young blokes in identical T-shirts which proudly proclaimed them to be "Top Drinkers".

They were not at all the rat-arsed as we have come to know them, the stereotypical ignoramuses, the slags and bums that litter the streets from Essex to Newcastle. These boys were nicely spoken, with expensive haircuts and arrogant, not unlike Prince Harry's Eton friends.

Binge drinking is a great equaliser and connects yobs with toffs on the road to hell. Well tanked up, though very coherent, they stopped at a bar with flashing neon signs and downed a hideous number of shots from various bottles of spirits. All but one were alarmingly unaffected as they moved to the next watering hole.

The only lad to show signs of inebriation then decided to take up a manly challenge to the great merriment of his mates. He grabbed a large, empty beer glass, pulled down his trousers and peed into it, promising to drink it all in one gulp. I suppose it made economic sense, this recycling. We didn't have the stomach to wait for his triumph and we switched channels.

Best avoided, these loutish binge drinkers who are only likely to get more debauched now that the government is pushing ahead with its libertarian policy which would allow pubs to stay open all day and night. Almost everyone with any sense can see that this insanity can only lead to more heartache for families and an intolerable increase in the demands placed on law enforcement agencies, local authorities and the overstretched National Health Service.

The sophistry of ministers supporting relaxed licensing laws is just that. They argue that they do not wish to punish the majority of well-behaved people because of the disgusting antics of the extreme drinkers. Instead, this 24-hour open-door approach will lead us towards a more mature drinking culture, one that will deliver civilised pleasures.

We know the dramatic statistics which are causing most alarm. Every city, small town or village centre, seaside resort and locality in Britain experiences the poisonous effects of weekend night binge-drinking: vomit, violence and vandalism. In the last five years, there has been a 24 per cent rise in the number of girls under 15 admitted to hospital with alcohol-related problems. Over 40 per cent of Accident and Emergency cases are caused by drunkenness. The soaring rates of teenage pregnancies and the level of teenage drunkenness must also be linked.

I can see my own lips pursing with middle-class self-righteousness as I write this. These are not people like us, these yobs. Sure, when our sons and daughters are at university, they briefly overindulge because that is what is expected, but our sensible values soon prevail and bring them back into the fold. Under New Labour the gap between the rich and poor has widened and so too has the gap between the publicly drunk and those who think of themselves as cultivated, "continental-style" connoisseurs of drink. Snobbery and self-delusion have obscured the truth that, in this country, profligate drinking is a problem across the board - at fine dinner tables and restaurants too. Cool Britannia is a dipsomaniac.

Yet most of those who today drink vastly more than they did before do not believe they have a problem. They are the folk who have, or would like to have, their own place in Tuscany or France; who join wine-tasting clubs and go on champagne-tasting holidays. They are in denial but are as likely as the sickos above, sooner or later, to suffer from cirrhosis of the liver and other serious conditions caused by alcohol abuse.

Members of my own family become furious when I suggest that middle-class drinking habits, too, are out of control and creating havoc. Only our society chooses to disregard this problem, preferring instead to concentrate disapproval on the marauding pissheads in town centres.

I know a woman whose story is not unusual at all. Her young husband is a doctor in an hospital A&E department. He drinks, she says, at least a dozen bottles of good wine each week. It has to be excellent stuff, well recommended by buffs. His wine drinking has steadily gone up from a couple of glasses a day. He is becoming unpredictable, his hands shake, he has started to hit her when she objects and their young children are now getting frightened of their father. The worst times are when he comes home exhausted and then "relaxes" with a bottle. Harriet Harman's invaluable policy research into domestic violence shows a link between alcohol and family violence, most of which remains hidden.

The trouble is that most drinkers measure themselves against the sort of people you see on Bravo TV and this relieves them of any anxiety that they might be overdoing it.

Be honest and ask yourself some questions. Do you think it is normal to drink three to four glasses of wine or beer at one sitting? Have you convinced yourself that not drinking copious amounts of wine is bad for your heart? Do you have to have a couple of beers or a gin and tonic to relax at the end of the day? Do you think of beer as hardly alcohol at all? Do you feel that drinking wine makes you a part of the French, Spanish and Italian culture?

Don't kid yourself. As Professor Robin Touquet, a consultant at St Mary's Hospital at Paddington in London says, the Anglo-Saxon culture is incapable of turning itself into a Mediterranean one. He is right: around the Mediterranean, alcohol is consumed mainly with meals and with the family or friends sitting around a table. One, maybe two bottles are drunk, over a long period. The glasses are small and people sip their wine - and water too which is always at the table. What has happened across the UK is that this "continental" wine drinking has been added on to the long-established drinking patterns of this nation.

As for immigrants from more temperate communities, we too are finding that alcoholism is getting worse - even among Muslims who like to pretend that their people do not touch a drop. For now though, at least Hindu, Sikh and Muslim drunks are made to feel ashamed of what they do to themselves and their families, so they don't think excessive boozing is a huge joke.

I still believe that only a tiny minority of black and Asian women and girls are caught up in the habit. But it is only a matter of time. With more money swilling around and the media selling the booze lifestyle, most of us are worried that our young people will not be able to resist this drug and its tragic effects on their lives.

I drink wine, in moderation and with food, though I have never ever been drunk. I never want to experience that pleasure. But it is clear that these attitudes are seen as hopelessly out of touch. Universities and colleges appear to believe they can and should do nothing to change the drink culture which pervades their institutions. The number of drinking venues is growing exponentially in every town and city.

We are drinking 100 per cent more than we did in the sixties. But politicians (presumably wanting some hefty party donations from the drink industry to fight the next election) want us to consume more, not less. Tony Blair now tells us what we most need is the choice and freedom to drink around the clock because that is what they have in the rest of Europe. Doesn't he see that when it comes to drink, we will never be like the rest of Europe?

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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