Leading article: Cheap drink, violence, and an outbreak of moral panic

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The Independent Online

The debate about alcohol has become shrouded in moral panic. Barely a day passes without drink being demonised in the media. A succession of terrible stories of people killed in acts of drunken violence has been seized upon and presented as evidence of a society on the brink of breakdown. But it is not just the press. Last week, Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, complained that retailers were selling beer "cheaper than water". Yesterday, the British Medical Association warned that the country was in the midst of an alcohol "epidemic". There is an hysterical edge to much of this. Some of the lurid descriptions of Britain's modern-day drinking culture make Hogarth's Gin Lane look tame.

We cannot argue that Britain does not have a drink problem. We may not be the biggest consumers of alcohol in the world but the manner in which we drink is particularly unhealthy. Few nations binge-drink quite as enthusiastically as the British, and the results are often not pretty. Notwithstanding the exaggerations of the populist press, market towns and city centres can be pretty ghastly places to visit on Saturday nights.

But it is most unlikely that some of the solutions being bandied about, such as increasing the price of alcohol through taxation and putting warning labels on bottles and cans, would have a significant effect. Proponents of making alcohol more expensive assume that the demand for it would fall away. Yet it is more likely that such a price rise would push drinkers in the direction of more powerful spirits. It is hard to see warning labels having much effect on consumption levels either. Nor is there any reason to believe that a return to the old licensing hours, an option being studied by the Government, would reduce the problem. People have short memories. There was alcohol-fuelled violence in town and city centres long before opening times were extended in 2005.

We must face up to the fact that binge-drinking is a deep-rooted cultural phenomenon. The law must be enforced to stop alcohol getting into the hands of the under-aged. But if we want people to stop consuming alcohol in such a reckless manner, the solution must be, in the end, a cultural shift. It may not satisfy those who clamour for "tough" action from the Government but public education is the most realistic way to tackle the problem.

That does not mean the drinks industry should go unchallenged. It is right that social and political pressure should be brought to bear on those who market alcohol irresponsibly and on drinking establishments which have a cavalier attitude towards public order. But we will never solve the problem fully until we think more deeply about the reasons people drink to excess. When we do, it will become apparent that the hysterical fear we have of teenagers is contributing to the problem. We give young people pathetically few places to socialise, we chase them from public places with dispersal orders (and, more recently, ear-splitting electronic devices) and then wonder why they congregate on street corners or in parks to drink alcohol. This is the behaviour of a society in search of quick fixes rather than serious solutions.

Our attitudes towards alcohol need to change. We need to accept what many of our European neighbours have always known: that it is not necessary to drink to excess to unwind or have a good time. This will be a difficult, although not impossible, task. But as many a recovering alcoholic has been forced to learn, we first need to understand that alcohol itself is not the root of the problem. It is us.