Janet Street-Porter: Bring back ration books – for booze

Wednesday 18 March 2009 01:00

Politicians were depressingly quick to pour cold water on Sir Liam Donaldson's recommendation that there should be a minimum price for alcohol of at least 50p a unit. Predictably, they used the "why penalise the sensible majority" argument, claiming it would simply be unfair to increase the bills of hard-working families struggling to make ends meet in a recession.

Referring to bottles of spirits, strong beer and wine in the same breath as food staples is part of the problem. Sir Liam is right – alcohol is now too cheap and too strong, and in the UK (like many northern European countries with cool climates) we tend to drink to get drunk unlike Mediterranean cultures where people sip rather than slurp. In Scotland, plans have already been announced to introduce minimum prices for alcohol, so why not in England?

Clearly, there are no votes to be gained from increasing the price of booze, and the brewers and distillers are formidable lobbyists who always claim massive job losses if their product isn't available at rock-bottom prices.

I happen to agree with Sir Liam. Drink doesn't cost enough, and as prices have tumbled, so our attitude to booze has changed. Put simply, we don't treat alcoholic drinks with any respect. They are simply a means to an end.

Wine that costs less than £3 a bottle, lager well under £1 a can and vodka for less than 30p a shot – are these drinks being consumed for their taste or simply because they are a legal alternative to recreational drugs, ie. a way of blanking out life's difficulties?

MPs can be mealy-mouthed and pretend that hard-working ordinary families will be the hardest hit if booze costs more, but the biggest group of drinkers in Britain are aged over 45 and middle-class, according to NHS statistics. Men aged 55 to 64 were the most frequent drinkers, a third of whom said they had drunk alcohol five out of the previous seven days. One in five women aged between 65 and 74 drank that often.

It might be bad for their health, but most of them can afford to pay a couple of pounds a week extra. For all the scare statistics about young boozers, just 12 per cent of men and five per cent of women aged between 16 and 24 drink that regularly. As people get older, they drink more to get the same effect as their bodies become alcohol-tolerant. Young people don't drink that often, but they are the people who binge to oblivion when they do.

If alcohol cost more, would we drink less? Research by Sheffield University concludes that increasing the price of booze will have the biggest impact on people whose drinking levels have a detrimental effect on their health and the smallest impact on sensible drinkers. How has the freedom to get drunk very cheaply become a cast-iron human right? People who think it's part of their plan for living to be able to get legless for less than a fiver are not people I want to be anywhere near.

During the Second World War we had rationing, and as a result the population was fitter, leaner and more resourceful. My parents' generation had fun in all sorts of other ways when meat, sugar and chocolate weren't readily available.

Here's a radical thought. Why not re-introduce ration books for booze – with double the amount of units the NHS says is healthy allocated for each week. That way we could stockpile for parties. We could redeem our coupons, pay a minimum price per unit, and of course there would be a thriving black market for those determined to drink to excess. It sounds drastic, but how else can drink be seen as a luxury rather than a staple like baked beans?

It's what the chic hens are wearing...

Forget jumpsuits, bubble skirts and harem trousers, the big fashion news this spring is that chickens are wearing trendy hand-knitted sweaters. The weather might be balmy this week, but the recent snow was tough on hens rescued from battery farms. These poor birds are almost bald, and animal rescue workers have been asking the public to knit them some warming woollies. The internet is full of touching pictures of chickens sporting stripes, bobbles and even a garment called a "chux tux". Birds at the Little Hen Rescue Centre in Norwich have received 1,500 specially knitted sweaters and fans are busy posting clips of their knitting clubs online. Only in Britain!

Kim Jong-il finally gets a taste for pizza

The North Koreans have a new cultural experience to savour. They might be poor, and lacking in life's little luxuries, but now they've been granted the chance to eat pizza. "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il has allowed the first pizzeria to open in Pyongyang, and a spokesman claims the notoriously picky dictator wants his subjects to have "access to the world's famous dishes".

But will North Korean pizza resemble anything from Naples? Not necessarily. Pizza is one of those classic dishes that each country feels compelled to reinvent from scratch, generally discarding the classic ingredients of tomato and mozzarella. The Brits devised the breakfast pizza with bacon and egg and the Chinese-inspired duck in plum sauce pizza, so we can't really be accused of being pizza purists.

South Koreans already have a wide range of pizza chains offering their own quirky interpretations such as potato pizza – wedges of spud interspersed with chunks of fried bacon. On YouTube there's a clip of a South Korean chef concocting a vegetarian rice pizza, with a mashed rice base, soya mozzarella, meat-free ham and canned corn. It's colourful, if nothing else.

The Mr Pizza Korea chain offers a dish tantalisingly entitled "placing carb meat without regret". What's in it is anyone's guess, but at least they have a catchy slogan: "Love for women."

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