26/03/2012 09:21 BST | Updated 26/05/2012 06:12 BST

Alcohol: Virtue or Vice?

Scandal of our Society

Recently, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to tackle the "scandal of our society" - a reference to the UK's binge drinking culture, where abusive drinking is reported to cost the NHS in excess of £2.7 billion/year.

Now, we learn that the coalition government is introducing a £0.40 minimum price per unit and ban the sale of multi-buy discount deals in supermarkets.

Deadly Statistics

Over 10 million adults in England drink more than the recommended limits, accounting for 75% of all the alcohol consumed; 2.6 million of these drink more than twice the recommended limits.

Prof Sir Ian Gilmore (writing in the Lancet) "There could be 210,000 preventable deaths over the next twenty years due to alcohol-related diseases, accidents and violence".

A recent government report put alcohol's cost to society in crime and lost work at anywhere between £17bn and £22bn. Alcohol is now the second biggest risk factor for cancer after smoking, contributing to cancers of the mouth and throat, liver, laryngeal, colon (in men) and breast cancer.

The 40p a unit minimum price could mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year and 9,000 fewer alcohol related deaths over the next decade, the government claims.

Historical Context

The consumption of alcohol is largely dependent on region, cultural norms, religious values and family background. In America, banning alcohol (prohibition) was attempted in the 1920s, but this didn't work; it just pushed the sales of alcohol underground (bootlegging).

It certainly isn't a new phenomenon; it's been with humanity for centuries. Yet the arguments both for and against social drinking are ever-present, and getting the balance correct between individual choice, social responsibility and state policy, the "golden triangle' is particularly tricky.

Drinks Industry / Promotions

The commercial sector also has their perspective on the matter, arguing that the situation is being over-played. Henry Ashworth, chief executive of the Portman Group, which also represents UK drinks producers, said: "It is really important that we put this report in context. The vast majority of people drink responsibly... we agree with the prime minister that strong partnerships are essential to tackle the minority who use alcohol recklessly and drinks producers are committed to supporting this approach."

Contradiction & Mixed Messages

Many argue that when drinking alcohol in moderation, it is not only harmless, but acts as rather like a sedative; calming and relaxing the nerves. And the debate is currently hot as to why certain drugs that have potentially therapeutic effects are banned, whereas alcohol is widely distributed?

In any case, alcohol is a strong part of one's British (and Western) identity. So-much-so, that taking it out of the social fabric would create a gaping hole: what would people do then?

This is probably the heart of the issue. On the one hand, it is a huge part of the general culture and identity, hence its wide-spread presence, legality and availability.

Yet, on the other hand, it is more toxic than some of the 'softer' drugs that are currently classified as illegal. This is not only a contradiction, but is very confusing for the younger members of every up-coming generation who grow up trying to reconcile their 'identity' with a 'legal substance' that possesses the power to intoxicate, and ultimately lead to harm.

There are amongst us those who have never drunk a sip - I amongst them. There are others who have tried it and not wanted anymore, they've decided to become 'tee-total'.

Life-Style Changers: Abstainers

And this is the real central feature of the alcohol culture: that people want the companionship in a place to 'unwind'; i.e. to find escape from the daily chores along with sociable company to relate with, and there is no harm in this itself. But surely, this does not have to include alcohol, or any other classified drugs for that matter, does it?

And it's the celebrities too who are changing their drinking habits and attitudes towards this substance. Many (from Leona Lewis to David Beckham ) citing they "hate the taste", "never needed it to relax" and it extends to other Hollywood 'A'-list stars including the likes of Natalie Portman, Bruce Willis, Samuel L Jackson and Tom Cruise.

Viable Alternatives

Intervention treatments are only dealing with the symptoms, sometimes a little too late. To me, it seems the more fundamental criteria are two-fold: (a) the societal attitude towards alcoholic beverages and consumption, and (b) the provision of viable alternatives.

It's this activity-related drinking that concerns me more than other things, because often it appears everything is normal, under control, then before long, something happens. Though tolerance towards alcohol can vary from person-person, and there are minimum guidelines published everywhere, but who's watching and measuring when people are drinking in private? And more people are now 'pre-loading' themselves on cheaper-priced alcohol before going out to clubs, where prices are often higher, then onto the streets.


What the government ought to do, as it has a moral responsibility to encourage and ensure good social behaviour and maintain peaceful order, is to get the licencing strategy right Helping people - the younger members especially - have wider access to viable alternatives to alcohol-centred activities will encourage better life-style choices. In my opinion, price-strategy is only part of the solution, not the complete answer.

Further, why don't non-alcoholic cafeterias stay open till later? If one looks across the Middle East, as elsewhere, families and young people go out at night to places of relaxation and socialisation where there is no sign or presence of alcohol.

Here too, I believe, a similar cultural shift would assist in normalising drinking habits and attitudes. Sadly, until and unless we get the balance right, we, as a society, are going to continue to face the ills of alcohol.

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