I've written some pretty controversial things in previous blogs, and yet somehow this is the one that will most likely incur the wrath of ordinary, mild mannered citizens around the globe. There are few things we get more passionate about that the right to get shitfaced whenever we want. It's a wonder no-one's edited the American Declaration of Independence to claim the unalienable right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happy-Hour...
But let's be sensible for a second; is access to booze a human right? One town in Australia, Halls Creek, tried in 2009 to claim as much when the State government banned the sale of full strength alcohol. A legal professor was quick to point out they had very little chance of winning that class action lawsuit, disappointingly failing to mention that getting the judge hammered on pina coladas was probably their only hope. Can a government legitimately prohibit the sale of certain drugs like that? Well, yes - of course they can. When was the last time you successfully bought heroin over the counter? If you're younger than 100, that's meant to be a rhetorical question - please don't feel the need to respond in the comments section. If you are older than 100, well done you on making it this far!
As we all know, some drugs are legal, some are regulated, and some are completely illegal. The specific decisions are made by governments based on history, scientific evidence, and moral considerations. There is no denying that, if it were invented today, alcohol would be bunged on the naughty list. A study published in 2010 by the UK Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, co-authored by Professor David Nutt, revealed that alcohol is more damaging to society than any other drug, including heroin, crack cocaine and crystal meth. (You can read the abstract for the paper here. However, alcohol is so ancient, and so entrenched in human history, that its place in our lives is almost unchallengeable.
Humans have been getting pissed for thousands of years, probably at least since the last Ice Age (the era, not the movie with the hilarious sabre-toothed squirrel creature). The accidental fermentation of berries and natural sugars no doubt delighted our cave-dwelling ancestors as much as it delights modern animals, who have been recorded getting plastered off rotting fruit, then wobbling sideways into hedges. Humans began deliberately brewing beer millennia before they invented the wheel - meaning they were falling off the wagon long before they even knew what a wagon was - and there is strong evidence to suggest it was used as a staple food in the absence of bread, which sounds a bit stupid until you realise one ounce of pure ethanol contains 274 calories.
Booze is even in the Bible - the first thing Noah does after the Great Flood is plant a vineyard, drink the wine, and then get his todger out in a drunken stupor, only to be discovered sleeping naked by his son. It's reassuring to know that even God's chosen zoo curator would probably have plonked a traffic cone on his head and run naked down the high street, if he'd had the opportunity to join a university rugby club. As it is, it sounds like he just stumbled naked around his tent, while God rolled his eyes in despair.
While Noah is the first viticulturist in the Bible, it was the god Osiris who had the honours in Egyptian mythology. This is unsurprising; beer and wine had religious connotations in much of the ancient world. It was mind-altering, a relaxant, and seemed to heighten the spiritual potency of communing with the gods. The Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans all saw alcohol as both nutritional beverage, and powerful symbol of religious ritual. It seems hardly a coincidence that the blood of Christ is symbolised through wine, presumably because Ribena was yet to be invented.
Similarly, the Ancient Chinese believed alcohol produced a meditative state, and that moderate consumption was mandated from Heaven. That said, there were 41 different attempts to outlaw wine-making in China between 1100 BC and 1400 AD, and every single one was repealed. In a splendidly far-seeing bit of analysis, an official wrote in 650 BC that: "People will not do without beer. To prohibit it and secure total abstinence from it is beyond the power even of sages. Hence, therefore, we have warnings on the abuse of it." We'll come to the most famous example of Prohibition shortly...
In the Middle Ages, beer and honey mead was often safer to drink than water, and was even brewed by monasteries for general consumption. The Vikings and Saxons were particularly fond of their drinking, and gathered en masse in Mead Halls for epic lock-ins that would make George Best look like a tea-drinking pansy. Some archaeologists believe Viking drinking horns were deliberately curved so you couldn't put them down - you always had a drink in your hand, or you downed it in one. It's no surprise that Viking Valhalla (Heaven for those killed in battle) was basically just a massive Mead Hall made of golden spears and shields, with a never-ending vat of booze from which to drink. So, a bit like a Wetherspoons decorated by Donald Trump, then.
Perhaps the most famous alcoholic era in history was the Gin Craze of the early 18th Century, which afflicted London in particular. Here, due to the low cost of its production, gin was represented in the contemporary media as an inescapable evil of epidemic proportions. William Hogarth, the great artist, started churning out powerful images of drunken women feeding their babies gin, or dropping kids on their head because they were too sozzled to notice. The Gin Craze was a major problem for about four decades, and it's believed Londoners were drinking more than a pint a week each of the stuff, but much of the moral outrage came at the foreign origins of gin - it seems the authorities were less worried about alcohol abuse, and more about the patriotic concerns of British people drinking a French tipple!
Emerging blearily from the hedonistic excesses of the 18th Century, the Victorian era instead witnessed a powerful campaign by religious progressives towards temperance. The new religions of Quakerism, Methodism and such others placed much more stock in promoting moral causes, and great patriarchs of the industrial revolution, like Sir Titus Salt, took it upon themselves to build new towns for their workers that did away with pubs in favour of schools and libraries. Ironically, there is now a pub in Saltaire (founded by Sir Titus) named in his honour, just as there is a pub in Soho named after the famous Cholera-detective, John Snow, who was also a tee-totaller. Temperance never quite gained enough traction in Britain, where boozing levels were equally high as they are today, but across the pond the American government was more than happy to ignore the lessons of history.
The 13-year Prohibition policy, enacted by the US government between 1920-33, was done so with the best of intentions, but as any ancient Chinese official will tell you, total prohibition doesn't work. Americans reacted to this emphatic curbing of their drinking rights by getting smashed on dangerous homemade methyl alcohol instead - the kind that can make you blind, paralysed or dead. Those that didn't have strokes, or keel over into ditches, lurched around with debilitating hangovers, showed up late for work, and smashed their cars into stationary objects. What the government had not foreseen was that people like to drink, no matter whether it's legal or not.
Perhaps it's a cultural thing specific to alcohol's place in history, or maybe booze is just the easiest mood-altering drug out there, but Americans simply refused to be denied their fix. Ironically, this had enormous repercussions for society, far greater than the pre-existing problems that Prohibition was meant to eradicate. With hangovers that could literally kill a man, the ordinary citizenry were suddenly a lot less useful to the American economy, and worse than that, they were essentially crowd-funding an enormous criminal syndicate which had become rich by mass-producing the dangerous 'gut-rot', or by smuggling traditional alcohol in high-powered cars (which was the origins of stock car racing). Massive investment in police resources failed to stem the tide, and in the end the only sensible decision was to reverse the policy entirely, leaving speakeasies to become ironic bars for future hipsters, and stock car racing to become the literal definition of drinking and driving.
So, Prohibition doesn't work for practical reasons, and scientific research shows widespread alcohol consumption is far deadlier than many of us like to imagine. There are strong philosophical reasons to allow people to continue drinking, most famously the notion of J.S. Mill's famous 'Harm Principle' which says we should be allowed to do what we like to our own bodies provided it doesn't harm anyone else. But, with a centralised healthcare system currently on its knees due to the spiralling cost of treating chronic illnesses, the Harm Principle starts to look a little less clean-cut as an argument.
Long-term alcohol consumption increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, strokes, cancer, organ failure, and obesity. These things affect the individual, of course, but they also have knock-on effects for the rest of society, which has to shoulder the financial burden. Hospital admissions in England, related to alcohol, have rocketed 40% in a decade to 1.2million per year, despite overall trends of alcohol consumption declining in all demographics. The cost to the NHS is already a few billion quid, and that is money that could be spent elsewhere. There is also a secondary argument that excessive alcohol consumption exacerbates crime to the sum tune of £21billion per year to the taxpayer. To be clear, I'm not saying us being out of pocket is the problem, per se, because that is not a legitimate defence against the Harm Principle. Instead, we should consider the strain on resources in hospitals and police stations that places other citizens at increased risk of harm, because doctors, nurses and police officers are over-worked with the alcohol-related backlog, thereby reducing the quality and standards of what they can offer to others in need of help.
We thirsty few currently spend £42billion on booze in England and Wales, and a study by the NHS has revealed that the affordability of alcohol is still at an exceptionally high level, showing only a small dip since the historical peak of 2007, just before we discovered that a credit crunch wasn't a type of biscuit.
In reaction to this over-abundance of supermarket multi-deals, the Coalition government has announced its intention to introduce a minimum price of 45p per unit of alcohol in England. This is lower than the 50p tariff recommended by medical campaigners, but it will bung an extra £3 on a bottle of vodka, and another quid on a cheap bottle of plonk, so it may have some small but useful impact. Those who argue this is punitive to the lower income populous don't have much of a case - no-one is denying access to alcohol, it is just making it that little bit less tempting to overindulge. As we have established already, booze isn't a human right, just as Lamborghinis aren't a human right (thank goodness, as both are probably equally deadly) - things have a market value, and artificially aggressive supermarket competition has pushed alcohol's price down a little too much.
However, whether this minimum price policy will work is entirely unknown. Prohibition should have worked in theory, yet was the biggest failure in recent history (until that crap John Carter movie...) The statistical modelling that predicts how many lives will be saved (around 700), how many fewer hospital admissions there will be (nearly 25,000) and how many crimes won't subsequently be committed (around 5,000) is being questioned by some who think it's a bit optimistic. As Nate Silver proved in the recent US election, stats are iron-clad if you get the right data, but this alcohol policy is something of an experiment and the predictions may, in truth, be way off. Worryingly, I even heard a bloke on Radio 1 suggesting he was going to brew his own hooch to avoid the price rise, so there may be a small increase in black-market smuggling and DIY moonshine production. However, this policy is hardly draconian, and it seems a fair attempt to gently reduce the over-consumption of alcohol amongst a broad swathe of society. You can't really legislate for the determined boozers who will always find a way to pickle themselves.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out I am a tee-totaller, but mostly for boring reasons - I have no intention of ruining the fun for everyone else, and am often very happy in a pub with my outrageously expensive lemonade, giggling as everyone else starts to slur into their pint. Booze will always be part of our culture, and I'm totally fine with that, but I also want to live in a society where going a bit wild on a night out is the enjoyable exception, not the rule. Drink! Be merry! But if you're puking on your shoes more than five times per year, that's your body probably saying it's time to slow down a tad.
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