There are two effective ways for a society to avoid mass public drunkenness and disorder. One is to go down the Saudi route and apply draconian punishments to anyone caught drinking (and they need to be draconian and enforced: US prohibition failed for this reason); the other is to position alcohol as a perfectly normal part of life and not some kind of special, magical taboo.
The Daily Mail case
Now, I’m deeply sceptical that society is actually steeped in a Hogarthian mist of gin. But that isn’t even the point. Let’s assume the Daily Mail case, that public drunkenness is the scourge of our nation and puts innocent people in fear; and that the worst group of the lot are the teenage kids drinking cider in the park and getting off with each other. Purely for comedy value, let’s pretend we didn’t do exactly the same when we were their age, or indeed that every cohort of teens since the invention of ethanol didn’t do exactly the same…
So, assuming that we want to cut binge drinking among teens, what would be the best way to go about it? The data in this comparative study shows (ignore the text, it’s written by crazy prohibitionists) that the lowest rates of heavy drinking and drunkenness among teens are seen in the US and Southern Europe.
This fits precisely with the two ways mentioned above: if you want to cut irresponsible teen drinking either go down the American route and treat drinking by kids under any circumstances as A Serious And Downright Evil Crime, or go down the Southern European route and treat moderate drinking by kids as a perfectly reasonable thing to do as long as it doesn’t get silly.
Mixing your drinks laws
The well-meaning prohibitionists at Alcohol Concern are big fans of the view that we have a serious problem that needs solving, as are the lovable nannyists at the Institute for Public Policy Research. The first group wants to ban parents from giving alcohol to under-16s in any context (yup, even watered-down wine with dinner); the second group wants to raise the drinking age to 21. Both were opposed to the licensing law reforms, obviously, since they’re largely following the Saudi route.
However, the most important move the current government has made in terms of alcohol policy is very much a Southern European one: instead of having to leave the pub at 11:20pm and go to a horrible club, you can now spread out your drinking over a longer period (except in Westminster, where the council is evil and refuses to grant licenses past 11:30). As anyone sane might have predicted, the changes have cut alcohol-related violence.
This leaves us in a schizophrenic position: we know that the prohibition route is largely effective, and we know that the treating-alcohol-responsibly route is largely effective, and we know that half-measures are largely ineffective. But public policy on drinking is an incoherent mix of the two, with an overall liberalising agenda tempered by cynical appeals to tabloid populism (yes, I know this is hardly unique to alcohol policy).
Hang ’em or flog ’em booze
I’m strongly in favour of heading down the southern European route; the American system whereby teens who have a drink can be refused entry to university and parents who supply a few beers for their teenage kids’ parties can end up in jail strikes me as barbaric and insane.
Even beyond my opposition to arbitrarily ruining people’s lives for posession of a chemical substance, I approve of alcohol. It has an enormously positive impact on most people’s lives.
I don’t just mean that good wine and good whisky are wonderful sensual experiences second only to good sex, although they are. I mean that alcohol is strongly and directly correlated with having a good time. I mean that getting drunk with someone is one of the best ways to get to know them. I mean that most social activities are enhanced by mass moderate-to-high alcohol consumption.
I mean that, even when walking home completely sober at 1AM on a Friday or Saturday – I’ve never felt threatened, appalled, or anything other than amused by the antics of drunkards. I mean that the only people who’ve ever physically assaulted me have been sober.
I mean that drunkenness generally reveals a person’s true nature. I mean that if you’re a wife-beating or student-punching scumbag, that’s your fault and not the drink’s. And I mean that most people who say “I don’t need alcohol to have a good time” actually appear to have neither.
It’s hardly a surprise that the people who are professionally concerned about high alcohol consumption are in the ‘neither’ group. If you think alcohol is fun, then you’ll probably not go into a job dedicated to diminishing its consumption.
But it’s still a shame that drinking policy has been monopolised by the prohibitionists – society as a whole would be better off with a team of dedicated sensible people, coming up with studies that demonstrate we could save THOUSAND OF LIVES and avoid MASS WIDESPREAD ANARCHY by giving kids wine with dinner, lowering the drinking age and opening more pubs…