Monday, 16 March 2009

In Vino Veritas, In Cervesio Felicitas

The advice of the chief medical officer to set minimum prices for alcohol addresses an important problem in exactly the wrong way. Britons drink more than anyone else in Europe, yet in attitude you'd think we'd only just discovered the stuff. The stereotype of French kids sipping wine at a family dinner, German teenagers knocking back a few social half-litres, and British youths marauding on White Lightning is extreme, yet the number of alcohol related incidents that tax NHS and police resources in Britain tell us there's something to it.

And it seems, we've always been this way. Samuel Johnson saw it as the great escape, Byron as an end in itself. Ambrose Bierce even credited it for the creation of an Empire, and the triumph of the Christian over the "abstentious Mohammedans" of India. This idea, that conquerors get drunk, work hard play hard, continues to permate our society. Why shouldn't we have a drink after work? Why, after spending all week bored at work and sat in traffic, can't we let our hair down at the weekend? This goes to the heart of the issue. When we work the longest hours in Europe, and are the most likely to live alone, is it any wonder the bottle seems a decent option?

The mixed messages from the government don't help. The issue time and again is that what works in other countries just doesn't work here. We all know that alcohol is far cheaper on the Continent, and more widely available, so that can't be the problem. Yet governments continue to participate in a sort of double-think. "Cafe culture" wouldn't work over here, because of existing issues with British society, so we're going to enact laws which restrict consumption, without dealing with the social concerns that make it a problem. It's cyclical. We won't have a more healthy relationship with alcohol until we approach it as adults, yet we can't do that while constantly being treated like naughty children whenever we pick up a bottle. Denial leads to excess, just look at 'abstinence only' sex education.

This action will not do one thing to limit the abuse of alcohol by anyone. If it takes an extra tenner a month out of a drunk's pocket, that's a tenner less he'll spend after alcohol. Another regressive tax from the party of the people. Alcohol in moderation is fairly benign, and a pint is probably doing you less damage than the pork scratchings you have with it. Taken to excess, drink is a route to oblivion, same as any other. And people who want to escape reality will do so, regardless of the cost. Someone who realises the risks to their health and wellbeing from getting trashed, and does it anyway, will not be discouraged by an extra quid from their pocket.

No drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we're looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn't test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.
-P.J. O'Rourke

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