Tuesday 17 March 2009

Time for sober reflection

There’s a thoughtful article here in today’s Telegraph by Max Davidson looking at the current debate over alcohol policy. He is right to say that kneejerk, headling-grabbing measures are unlikely to have the desired effect, even if they were politically possible, but he is also right to say that we shouldn’t deny that there is any problem at all.

During the thirty-odd years of my drinking career I have certainly seen a much more unpleasant and disorderly atmosphere develop in town and city centres on weekend nights, and there are many more products on the market that seem designed to cater for those who are intent on rapid inebriation without caring much how they get there.

Nobody claims that things were perfect in the 1970s, but I have argued before that changes in the design of pubs and licensing policies have exacerbated late night disorder.

Society has also increasingly tended to disapprove of regular, moderate drinking, in ways such as employers preventing their employees from even having the odd pint at lunchtimes, and drink-driving well within the legal limit being frowned upon. This has broken down the old rituals which kept people’s drinking in check and led them to take an “all or nothing” approach to alcohol.

The government’s official drinking guidelines have proved counter-productive, as they are so unrealistic that people cheerfully ignore them, and they serve to stigmatise those drinking at levels a bit above them, who are not the problem. It is not the 40 unit a week people who are ending up in liver clinics and A&E, it is the 100+ unit a week people.

Of course, taking an interest in what you're drinking, whether cask beer, fine wines or malt whisky, is likely to promote an attitude of enjoying them for their own sake rather than simply as a means to an end, and will encourage a more responsible overall attitude to alcohol.

But governments have to be very careful about legislating in this area, as you cannot promote social change through legislation if it goes against the grain of what is happening on the ground, and there is huge potential for unintended consequences. And you certainly can’t bring about a sense of greater responsibility through legislation alone.

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