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DRINKERS WILD

23-03-2009

Wine bottle

Lynn Hawthorne wonders whether proposals to push up the price of alcohol have been well thought-out.

Gordon Brown is reported to be, like cheap lager, ‘luke-warm’ regarding the suggestion by Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, that the price of alcohol should be raised in an attempt to curb binge drinking.

The medical argument is, apparently, that the wide availability of cheap booze is the cause of excessive drinking and leads to drink-related illnesses and even death. And that amount of treatment is costing the NHS a fortune.

It is undeniable that Britain has a drink problem. Pick any town centre on a Friday or Saturday night in the early hours of the morning, just as the pricey clubs are turning out, and you will see it for yourself. But is it really the cost of alcohol that is to blame, or is there something more deep-rooted that is at the heart of this issue?

The media refers to Donaldson as ‘the doctor who treated George Best in his latter years.’ (Incidentally, would that be the same doctor who gave Best a liver transplant when any sane person knew the former football idol would be back on the booze as soon as he was out of hospital?) I’m not sure that George Best is a valuable reference when discussing the cost of drink, as, in his heyday, he was earning vast sums of money from the offshoots of his football career.

So why did Best drink? Maybe even he didn’t know, but his alcoholism was an addiction and he couldn’t shake it, no matter how many people tried. Are the youngsters who spill out onto our high streets and vomit in doorways at weekends alcoholics? No, they’re just people who drink too much and can’t handle it. But has Sir Liam considered why they drink?

Maybe I’m being simplistic, but I think there are two main reasons, one financial and one cultural.

When I was 19, I had a mortgage. Interest rates were high and the lease charges exorbitant, so my priority when my wage packet arrived was to settle all my household expenses. The little I had left was for me, which didn’t go very far, quite frankly. I got onto the property ladder because I could.

Nowadays, young people have different priorities or, simply, cannot afford, to buy their own home. With the economic situation worsening, fewer people can afford mortgages and more and more are losing jobs. In their mid-20’s – or later – many people still live, or have moved back in, with their parents, so what they do earn is disposable income and can be spent how they like. This seems to involve breaking free of the parents and heading for pubs and clubs.

The availability of credit and overdrafts and acceptance of debt has also meant that they haven’t had to check their pockets to see if they’ve got enough cash to go out, they can play now, pay later.

The second reason is the culture we now live in. Maybe George Best was really the first superstar drunk of the media age. Being drunk was no longer the slightly embarrassing tipsy uncle saying something inappropriate to Great Aunt Flo at a family christening. No, it had become glamorous, an appealing symbol of wealth and status.

Newspapers gleefully reported Best’s latest indiscretions and photographed him making a pyramid of glasses and then pouring champagne over them, with a beautiful woman on each arm. The jokes were exchanged about having a ‘balanced diet’ (a glass in each hand) or the infamous quote: “I spent my money on women and booze. The rest I just wasted.” It was perceived as ok, it was fun.

More recently, our tabloids have been stalking Amy Winehouse and featuring shots of her lurching out of gigs and clubs, barely able to walk. While the older generations have tutted and muttered “look at the state of her”, our more media-influenced, reality TV-fed youngsters have thought that that is the epitome of a good night out. Having a good time is directly related to how much vodka you drank and how little you can remember as a result. The cost of the drink is not the issue; it’s the effect it has.

You will always have alcoholics. Look back at Hogarth’s Gin Lane series of etchings to see the devastating effect drink can have on lives – the ill-health, the violence, the crime. Alcoholism is serious and scary and distressing.

What Britain is suffering from is not cheap drink, but an acceptance of heavy drinking as the norm. Don’t forget that this is the government that legalised 24-hour drinking and encouraged alcoholics to come into drop-in centres by offering them cheap booze.

Gordon Brown needs to consider the issue more carefully.

It’s not simply a case of what people pay for their drink, but why they drink and why they drink so much. That’s not going to be solved by slapping on a 50p per unit levy.

If Donaldson is basing his philosophy on cheapness and availability, perhaps he should consider that any move to increase alcohol prices will make drugs like heroin even more appealing.

I may have been simplistic earlier on, but this is not an issue on which the government and health chiefs should make simplistic, economic judgements. Maybe politicians and ‘experts’ should open their eyes to the broader social issues facing this country.

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