The Blog

We Have to Stop Pretending That Alcohol Abuse Is Funny

I rarely drink alcohol. I have a physical condition that means that I can live with either alcohol or gravity but not both, and so went dry not just for a month but for ten straight years. Not just any ten years either, the good ones where you are old enough to have proper fun and young enough to outrun the Fuzz.

Congratulations to those who made it through Dry January. Not only is it a good way to raise money for Alcohol Concern, but recent research showed that volunteers abstaining from alcohol for even just a month saw appreciable reductions in the risk of liver disease.

I rarely drink alcohol. I have a physical condition that means that I can live with either alcohol or gravity but not both, and so went dry not just for a month but for ten straight years. Not just any ten years either, the good ones where you are old enough to have proper fun and young enough to outrun the Fuzz.

Then, due to some poor choices I fell off my wagon, behaved appallingly, hurt some people I care for, and regained a taste for alcohol that I had spent a decade overcoming. I became that most pitiful and least pitied thing, an ex-teetotal.

I appreciate that what follows falls foul of the rules of journalism that say that no-one who has ever used a car is allowed to talk about climate change, or that if you have ever been paid money for a job you can't talk about inequality; but let's, you and me, remember we are not cynics and acknowledge that journalism (a hard drinking culture, as Alastair Campbell's diaries show), along with how alcohol is reported, is part of the problem.

The media regularly decry the lack of a European 'café culture' in Britain, that strange Ruritanian vision where social problems are part of the cultural failing of Neanderthal Brits to sit and discuss La Dolce Vita and Kirkegaard over small cups of coffee, but they rarely look at the other side of the equation, the drinks companies and their enablers in public life.

While the media may be Janus-faced on alcohol, if anything they follow rather than lead public opinion. The merest suggestion that we all are complicit in enabling the drinking culture gets you accused almost immediately of being a New Puritan - just look at the prickly, defensive comments in this article that makes the pretty tame point that trying to live without alcohol may help some people live happier, healthier lives. If the 20% of the adult population that doesn't drink still has to contribute to the taxes that pay for the massive public health crisis and violent town centres that are the result of mass alcohol-consumption, don't they at least get to have their opinions heard?

Our public services and local authorities are equally complicit in this. Public alcoholism seems to be something that is managed, tolerated, laughed at even, rather than treated as a public health crisis, a drain on the emergency services, a huge cost centre for town halls, and a sign of a society that can't make its mind up whether to be concerned, inclusive and at ease with itself, or hedonistic, isolated and fearful.

If that seems controversial, just look at your city centre on a weekend night. Have a look at the street furniture, the security features of businesses, the CCTV, and the way things are laid out to ensure that punters are funnelled into drinking establishments and out into taxis, buses, ambulances and police vans.

If you were new to our culture, you might conclude that the main purpose of town centres is to maximise alcohol consumption with the fewest possible casualties.

What changes would be made if aiding the disabled, the elderly, or parents with children was the purpose of urban design rather than enabling people to consume alcohol? In fact, with the poor state of public transport in many places outside of London, emergency access seems to be the only thing that trumps alcohol delivery in modern civic design.

Alcohol abuse isn't just a problem of the margins. Public Health England estimates that harmful drinking costs a staggering £21bn a year, just in England, not to mention 1.2m hospital admissions, 15,000 deaths, and an increase in the numbers of those in treatment for alcohol dependency by 10% since the start of the recession. True, alcohol duty brings in £14.5bn, and licensing another £166m, but this leaves at least a £6bn deficit to be filled by the health and social care budgets that drinker and non-drinker alike pays for.

Imagine a Government Minister telling you that in 2014 the health and social care services plan to spend tens of billions on treating syphilis, that thousands of Brits will die from TB, more than a million people will be hospitalised with AIDS, and that the strategy was to merely manage these problems so as not to disrupt a profitable industry and all the tax revenue it produces.

I don't mean to be po-faced, but I don't really know how else to put it: we have to stop pretending that alcohol abuse is funny. Drunkenness doesn't turn you into a witty sophisticate. Your jokes are not funnier. Despite what you think, you do not become Ernest Hemingway when you add booze.

I am not telling anyone not to drink, and I wouldn't imagine that you would listen to me if I were. If it adds pleasure to your life, conversation, fraternity, love and generosity then do it. But be honest, we all know people for whom it is a coping mechanism, and for whom we wonder it there may be healthier ways to live their lives

Quite a number of us, too, know somebody for whom it is more than just a way to take the edge off: it is the first thought in the morning and the last thought at night. Those for whom alcohol is not just part of the rhythm of life, but its sole driving force.

Alcohol may be the reason why you are able to do what you are able to do. Professional success and personal happiness may be the result of the lubrication that only drink provides. But there is a reasonable a chance that a substance that slows reaction times and dulls the senses is holding you back from doing even better. This toxic substance doesn't just ruin individual lives, turning our backs on its worst excesses is ruining society too - and we are all complicit.