Friday 1 January 2010
It was a dream that just wasn’t going to come true. After decades of repressive drinking laws, which were often blamed for the British malady of drunkenness, both Conservative and Labour governments have relaxed drinking laws so that they match those of our continental neighbours.
Laws have always been different in Scotland and England, but the principles behind them have been the same. Both Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair felt that if the restrictive hours allowed for selling alcohol (introduced during the First World War) could be relaxed a little, then British people would not feel obliged to throw drink down their necks with such abandon, and a café style society would develop along the lines of that in France or Belgium.
It was a reasonable suggestion I suppose in fairness to both leaders. Why would British people be less capable of controlling their drinking urges than the French or Spanish?
However, for some reason it didn’t work. Official figures reported in today’s newspapers suggest that the cost to the NHS of dealing with drunkenness has doubled over the last 6 years. However, It is not clear whether that is UK wide or England only.
So.... what to do? The government in Edinburgh has put forward suggestions on minimum pricing for alcohol in an effort to stop the sale of alcohol that is sometimes cheaper than the water on their shelves. Loss leader alcohol deals are a way of pulling customers in. However opposition parties disagree that this would be effective.
Among other suggestions is one which on the face of it sounds good, but on analysis is filled with holes. It is that of charging people who are found drunk and incapable with the cost of their treatment. Good idea...sounds reasonable, you might think. They are draining the NHS, let them pay up. But of course you are left with the question of where you draw the line, and why a person who gets drunk and falls over at a certain cost to the public purse is any more culpable than someone who goes mountain climbing and needs to be rescued by helicopter. Both made the choice to do it and both cost us money. It’s also true to say that the tax take from alcohol (£13 billion in 2005/6)* is far larger than the amount spent on treating drunkenness currently £2.7 billion. It could reasonable be argued that drinkers have already paid handsomely to be rescued.
The government probably has no right to be nannying people to look after their health, although there is probably an obligation on them to ensure that people are aware of the dangers of over imbibing. The misery of cirrhosis of the liver should not be underestimated. We also need to take into consideration the right of those of us who prefer not to have to pick our way through last night’s vomit on our way to wherever we are going.
Perhaps we need to try to ensure that people who get into the state where they are lying half naked in the snow, understand just how disgusting they look. We turned around the culture of drink driving in this country from where almost everyone did it, to where almost no one does, by a series of hard hitting advertising campaigns. Can we do the same thing with this?
* The last fingures I could find.
Pictures from the Daily Mail.