Sunday, 4 November 2007

Dangerous Drinking

The nights are drawing in. Christmas is coming. And as every year the cascade of shock horror headlines about 'Britain's Booze Culture' and such-like is just getting started.

Today's Independent On Sunday cover, headed Britain's Deadly Cocktail, announced a '40% rise in just one year in under-age drinkers receiving treatment'1. Two weeks ago, a public health authority-sponsored report produced headlines after claiming that 'more people drink to hazardous levels in affluent areas than in poorer ones'2. The Daily Telegraph also reported a rise in emergency admissions to hospital caused by binge drinking last month3.

There is justified concern among civil libertarians that reports such as these will be used to justify a vicious Government crackdown on drinking, closing pubs and hiking up prices. There was particular outrage in response to public health minister Dawn Primarolo's quoted declaration4 in relation to the NWPHO report that "everyday drinkers...have drunk too much for too long. This has to change".

Emily Hill of the pro-liberty group Spiked Online wrote in a responding article published on Guardian Comment is Free of the "government...puritanical mania for making things 'socially unacceptable'". Libertarian blogger Devil's Kitchen (in a typically obscenity-filled post) that it threatened to represent an unacceptable interference into individual freedom of choice: "What business is it of the state's if I drink like a fish? As long as I turn up for work and pay my taxes which pay for any amenities that I might use, it is none of your business".

The consequences to individuals and to society of the abuse of alcohol are tremendous, however. It isn't something that is invented by Government spokespeople and BBC reporters in order to make people feel guilty/soften them up for higher taxation/piss them off. I have been spending quite a lot of my internet time recently reading 'service blogs'. That is, blogs by people working in the front-line public services describing the day-to-day reality of their jobs.

This is from the latest post on Paramedic's Diary, dated Friday 2 November7. Most of the author's posts contain at least one anecdote similar to this:
"The police, a motorbike responder (MRU) and myself were all called to a ‘20 year-old male, unconscious on a bus’. A hundred per cent of these calls, in my experience, have turned out to be nothing more than a sleeping drunk...the person may have a serious medical problem and I can’t dispute that but, statistically, the only real problem they have is alcohol."
This is from a recent post on The Policeman's Blog8:
"A frightening number of people drink a frightening amount of booze, and it pretty much keeps the police in work."
This is from ambulance E.M.T blog Random Acts of Reality9
"Let my paperwork speak for itself.

'Patient found asleep in the street, smells heavily of alcohol. Pupils large and sluggish, nystagmus. No obvious physical injury. On waking refused to allow me to take observations. Told me to "Fuck off", which is apparently the only English he speaks. Unable to get details of patient. Acting aggressive.
On arrival at hospital patient attempted to hit me, told me to "fuck off" again and left the ambulance and walked off.'

Sadly, not an unusual job."


These quotes are a representative sample. All are from the past month, and I could select a similar three from any month you care to name. The contents of these blogs paint a dismal picture of the misery, hurt and expense that is incurred by addicted or irresponsible individuals, by the people who have to pick up after them, and by innocent third parties, as a result of alcohol abuse.

No-one, at least no-one rational, is suggesting that the Government ban alcohol. It wasn't exactly a success last time a Western nation tried that10. Besides, more importantly, moderate social drinking is a pleasurable part of life for millions of people who never end up having to be taken to hospital, swearing at police officers or causing road accidents as a result. As for health, studies suggesting that a moderate intake of alcohol may be associated with longer life11 and that red wine in particular is associated with decreased risk of heart disease12.

Dawn Primarolo's comments were counterproductive, and I dare say she deserved some of the scorn that was heaped on her after the story broke.

The whole story (headlined by the Times 'Hazardous drinking, the middle class vice' and by the Telegraph 'Middle class are biggest abusers of alcohol') was reported in a somewhat misleading way by the newspapers4,13. Although "hazardous drinking" was found to occur more in affluent areas than poorer ones, "harmful drinking", a more serious category consisting of people drinking more than 50 units per week, is over-represented in the most deprived areas. Additionally, the definition of "hazardous drinking" is somewhat arbitrary14.

The vast majority of the social harm described previously is the result of alcohol abuse, alcoholism and underage drinking, not adults drinking a few pints in the pub or relaxing at home in front of the TV with a couple of glasses of wine. For the public health minister to use the contents of this report to tell such people that they have to reduce their drinking is so misguided one does have to wonder what the underlying agenda might be.

A general increase in alcohol taxation such as that which is being campaigned for by the NWPHO would do little to reduce problem drinking, and would anger a lot of taxpayers who just want to unwind after a hard day's/week's work - just as making cigarettes cost £5 for a pack of 20 hasn't significantly reduced smoking levels. Britain's alcohol abuse problem is a social problem that as the IoS report shows starts young, and needs social solutions - not economic wheezes.


1. http://news.independent.co.uk/health/article3127405.ece
2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/10/16/ndrinkers116.xml
3. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/10/15/nbinge115.xml
4. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article2666587.ece
5. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/emily_hill/2007/10/drink_drivel.html
6. http://devilskitchen.me.uk/2007/10/totalitarian-britain.html
7. http://theparamedicsdiary.blogspot.com/2007/11/dancing-queen.html
8. http://coppersblog.blogspot.com/2007/10/one-for-road.html
9. http://randomreality.blogware.com/blog/_archives/2007/10/29/3320183.html
10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prohibition_in_the_United_States
11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=16203503&dopt=Citation
12. http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146%2Fannurev.nutr.20.1.561
13. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/10/16/ndrinkers116.xml
14. http://timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/food_and_drink/article2697975.ece

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