Wednesday 19 June 2019

Booze-hating prohibitionists need to give up the boos

Alcohol policy in Ireland is now being driven by moral blackmail and prissy social superiority rather than facts

Minister Leo Varadkar
Minister Leo Varadkar

Eilis O'Hanlon

Leo Varadkar says the evidence about Ireland's drinking habits is "shocking". Which evidence would this be, Minister?

The evidence that alcohol consumption in Ireland has fallen by 25pc from its peak and that we're not that different to the rest of the world, no matter how much we enjoy beating ourselves up about our supposed depravity?

Unimpressed with these inconvenient facts, the anti-booze brigade has rustled up more melodramatic figures of their own to justify an abolitionist crackdown on drinkers. It's those alarmist statistics which the Minister for Health is using to fast-track the Government's new Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, unveiled last week.

There are some strange clauses in the bill, to say the least. Restricting the sale of alcohol to separate areas of shops so that impressionable customers won't be tempted into sin asks us to sign up to the curious notion that people only buy alcohol because they can see it and that the thought would never cross their minds otherwise. That's the same logic which says men won't want sex if women all wear burqas.

The same goes for the proposal that there should be no advertising of alcohol within an entirely arbitrary 200 metres of any school, creche or playground. No one's going to clamber on the barricades to fight these new rules, but only a fool would think they'll make even a fractional dent in consumption.

It would be laughable if those behind this high-handed tinkering didn't have such an evangelical belief that they are doing the work of the righteous. It's classic tokenism. It's not being undertaken because it will do any good, but simply to send a message to like-minded do-gooders that you're "one of them".

The proposals on minimum pricing are another matter. They're genuinely objectionable. Once this legislation goes through the Dail, it will be illegal to sell wine, beer or spirits at less than 10c per gram of alcohol. In practice, this means that a single can of beer will cost just short of two euro, and a bottle of wine with an alcoholic content of 12.5 per cent must carry a minimum price of €7.40. There will be no more happy hours. No more drinks promotions. No more buy-one, get-one-free offers. Anyone who dares challenge this authoritarian approach to alcohol faces draconian fines of up to €250,000 and up to three years in jail.

Did the Taliban secretly take over when we weren't looking?

This fundamentalism is being crowbarred into law on the grounds that excessive alcohol use leads to poor health, public disorder and domestic violence, with the assumption that anyone who opposes minimum alcohol prices must be for all these things. They're not. They just don't think it's their business to run other people's lives.

The tenor of alcohol policy now seems to be set by an unholy alliance of pleasure-denying puritans; megalomaniac doctors who act as if every cent spent on the health service comes straight out of their own pockets; and former drunks who seem to think that because they once had a dysfunctional relationship with the hard stuff, every single person in the country should now, literally, pay for it.

Those who fix your body have no more right to stake a claim over what you do with that body than those who fix your car have a right to stake a claim over what you do with that car. Both can advise; urge; offer their expert opinion; nag - but if the owner of said car freely chooses to keep filling up the petrol-only tank with diesel, that's their affair, not the mechanic's.

Imagine for a moment that doctors suddenly announced that they wanted to regulate the sex lives of their patients in order to stop grown adults from engaging in potentially harmful practices.

There'd be uproar and rightly so. But when this new priesthood of the prissy demands the right to control people's drinking and eating, that's apparently fine. Indeed, it is regarded as entirely laudable by the same people who long decried the church for meddling in the private lives of its flock.

Worse, there's no escape. Hate the church? Don't go to church. Hate being lectured by po-faced medics? Tough luck, because they're being given an effective monopoly on public policy.

It's not even as if there's any actual empirical evidence to show that imposing a minimum price on alcohol is the right way to go. The entire argument is based on computer models, which have to be endlessly tweaked to produce the desired conclusions. You simply input some figures saying that if the price rises by X then the number of hospital admissions will fall by Y and the number of offences committed under the influence of alcohol by Z - all of which figures are based on preconceived notions about how price affects consumption, for which there is no independent verification.

The methodologies underlying the most famous of these computer models have been demolished repeatedly, not least by a paper titled The Minimum Evidence For Minimum Pricing published in 2012 by the Adam Smith Institute, which concluded it was based on "unreasonable assumptions which render its figures meaningless".

There is no simple explanation for why consumers behave as they do. Consumption can be higher in countries with expensive booze and lower in countries with cheap booze. It's complicated. It's cultural.

Take that 25pc drop in alcohol consumption in Ireland from its peak.

Has this led to dramatic reductions in health costs? No, it hasn't. So where's the proof that it will miraculously do so now in response to the single percentage falls in drinking envisaged by the computer models as a result of raising the price of alcohol?

It's mere guesswork, but we're supposed to go along with the experiment because it's being done for our own good. Tell that to the poorest 30pc of the population, which research suggests will bear the brunt of higher prices.

The middle classes won't feel the impact of the new 10c per gram edict, as they already buy their supply of plonk at outlets where there's nothing on sale under a tenner anyway. Many of the bourgeois nannies directing this nonsense probably hadn't even realised it's possible to purchase wine that cheaply ("is it even drinkable, darling?")

It's a form of class-based punishment, in which people on restricted incomes will be hit hardest by those on higher incomes in accordance with the creed that it is the lower orders with no self-control who are letting the side down and that they must be told what to do by their more enlightened social superiors. David Norris illustrated it perfectly when insisting on Friday that those on social welfare shouldn't be allowed to buy drink at all. That's the authentic voice of Dublin's privileged beau monde.

Of course, excessive drinkers will end up paying more as a result of these changes than moderate drinkers, but they'll happily do it, because they're not really focused on price, that's why they're excessive drinkers; the clue is in the name. It's still a mystery why moderate drinkers with less money to splash about should be denied the few small pleasures left to them when they're not the problem.

Conspiracy theorists may suspect this is nothing more than a sneaky revenue-raising measure, but the truth is more disturbing. Politicians no longer have the backbone to stand up to health lobbies deploying dubious statistics and moral blackmail to control behaviours of which they disapprove.

Don't be naïve enough to believe the crusade against pleasure will stop here either. The Royal College of Physicians last week pointedly called Leo Varadkar's new alcohol bill an "important first step", meaning there'll be many more steps to come. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Sunday Independent

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