Monday 20 May 2019

Mary Kenny: Inebriation is not funny – it causes untold harm to us all

Professor Tim Stockwell is considered to be the world expert on the relationship between the price of alcohol and alcohol abuse.

He is a Canadian academic and director of the Centre for Addictions Research in British Colombia, and his advice to the British government at Westminster, and the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh is firm: fix a minimum price for alcohol and you will reduce problem drinking.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron last week railed against the amount of binge drinking in British society: "It drains resources in our hospitals, generates mayhem in our streets and spreads fear in our communities ... we can't go on like this." He thus proposes to introduce legislation that will make cheap booze dearer -- fixing a minimum price of 40 pence sterling (48c) per unit.

The low cost of alcohol in Britain surely is a cause for concern. The old adage of Gin Lane comes to mind: "Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence." Some liquor is cheaper than water. You can buy a cheap can of lager for 20p (24c) at discount stores and supermarkets; you can purchase a two-litre plastic bottle of gut-rotting cider for around £2 (€2.40); bottles of wine, both red and white, are easily available at £3.99 (€4.77). A standard bottle of Polish vodka can be bought for about £8 (€9.56).

Small wonder that a recent report from the British Department of Health revealed that there has been an increase of 25pc in deaths from liver disease, over a period of less than 10 years. While mortality from most other diseases is falling, cirrhosis -- an unfailing signifier of alcohol abuse -- is rising at an alarming rate: more than one in 10 liver-related deaths strikes people in their 40s.

In the 1970s, the British had the lowest rate of death from liver disease in the European Union; they now have among the highest, with Scotland a particular problem. Deaths from liver disease are expected to double over the next 20 years.

In the light of these statistics, who wouldn't endorse the intention of Westminster and Holyrood to increase the cost of alcohol? In Ireland, Health Minister Dr James Reilly is very much of the same mind.

As a reformed boozer myself, I have come to loathe drunkenness. Inebriation is not funny: it causes untold harm to individuals and society -- most domestic violence is fuelled by alcohol, as is much crime.

We tend to sneer at the Prohibitionists in Finland and the United States of the 1920s, but in its early stages, Prohibition was considered a success: family violence was greatly reduced, as was crime and even cruelty to animals.

There are some Prohibitionist areas, still, in the United States, in parts of the Southern Bible Belt and in Mormon country. When I hear clips of those Baptist preachers decrying the demon drink, I have every sympathy.

And there is no question but that in some jurisdictions on this side of the Atlantic, liquor is just too cheap.

However, for all that, there must be some reservations about these government measures about fixing alcohol pricing.

Putting up the price arbitrarily can be seen as punishing the innocent alongside the guilty: there are plenty of individuals who can enjoy a bottle of wine at £3.99, or even a couple of bargain lagers, without drinking to excess.

AND in Ireland, Dr Reilly's suggestion of banning alcohol advertising is tantamount to censorship. Advertising is simply enhanced information -- a manufacturer or retailer drawing attention to a product. If the product is legal, it should be legal to advertise it, and suppressing such information is the mark of an authoritarian state.

The freedom of the individual -- even to do something which is bad for him, or her -- must also be considered. If the individual is doing something that damages others, they should be subject to penalties according to the law -- rather than restrained by a nanny state. Professor Stockwell is insistent that minimum pricing has worked successfully in Canada, but there may be cultural aspects involved. Canada has a tradition of Presbyterianism which stigmatises alcohol abuse; it also has a French tradition that advances civilised drinking with meals rather than binge boozing.

It may be that the best way of combating the abuse of alcohol is cultural change. The fervour of temperance organisations -- in both Ireland and Britain -- did indeed reduce the worst excesses of Victorian drunkenness, aided by the advance in respectability.

In the end, Mr Cameron -- and Scottish Health Minister Nicola Sturgeon, a strong advocate of increasing the price of liquor -- may be forestalled by EU regulations on trading laws, which could rule government intervention on pricing to be illegal.

And some commentators say that the recession is reducing alcohol intake -- and binge drinking -- anyway.

In the late Victorian period, the trade unions took up the cause of temperance when drink was seen as degrading the working man.

Music halls supported temperance movements with popular songs such as: "Sell No More Drink To My Father", and "Lips That Touch Liquor Shall Never Touch Mine". Sinn Fein copied these sentiments with its slogan "Ireland Sober is Ireland Free!"

Sometimes popular communication gets the message across better than state enforcement.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss