Friday, April 24, 2009

Tackling New Labour's Bad Booze Cruise

A failed government booze strategy is at the heart of the country's out of control alcohol problem, according to leading experts, who've lined up to roundly condemn round-the-clock drinking and availability of cheap alcohol in supermarkets, brought in as part of the shiny new New Labour brand. 

It's easy to blame drinkers as they plunge into depths of despair and sink into the oblivion. But like the failed New Labour booze project, they're just viewing the rosy world through the bottom of a beer glass and the eyes of a drunk. 

Friday night brings with it the now all too familiar sorry spectacle. Decent folk too scared to go out on the streets, policed and ambulance crews struggling with the carnage and hospital staff at their wits end trying to cope. 

Doctors and academics were desperate to tell MPs just how it is. Costly and useless education initiatives have been a miserable failure because no-one has the guts to speak up and tackle the root cause. Until now.

Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, told MPs he firmly blamed the government for the deteriorating situation, saying health department strategies on the one hand were useless when, with the other hand, the  home office brought in 24-hour drinking laws.

One witness accused supermarkets of having the 'morality of the crack dealer' for selling cut-price alcohol. 

The alcohol problem got out of hand because no one was brave enough to challenge the false assumptions of relaxed licensing laws or cheap alcohol pricing and the devastating effects which were starting to shows themselves. 

After all, to attack those policies was to attack the very heart of a misguided New Labour project.

The devastating effects, now plain for all to see, were brushed under the carpet, with few willing to raise their heads above the parapet in case they were branded as part of a reactionary backlash to the wild and wonderful modernising policies. 

For the government, to admit failure would be to admit the failure of a central plank of policy.

Instead the country was dragged down the slippery slope with hugely wasteful public relations education campaigns seen as the answer. As if a message on a bottle to 'drink responsibly' would make a blind bit of difference to someone blind drunk. 

Cut-price supermarket booze is at the heart of the problem. MPs were told cut-price supermarket deals led to the surge in binge drinking, sparking a trend for young people to drink cheap alcohol at home before heading to bars and pubs.

The solution is easy to see but for a government, using the price of alcohol as a tool for stealth taxes and firmly in the pockets of the drinks and supermarket industry and powerful lobby, difficult to follow. 

Ministers had been too lenient with the drinks industry, MPs were warned. The amount of "unrestrained and quite irresponsible marketing"  in the UK is possibly the worst in Europe.

Alcohol sales should be restricted to stand alone licensed premises for the over 18s quite separate from the supermarkets which simply use cheap booze as loss leaders to entice shoppers into the store. A return to the "off-licence" and public house as the only alcohol outlets coupled with licences restaurants where age could be relaxed is the solution. 

But central to any seed change would be a reversal of the relaxed 24 hour drinking laws which were brought in to try to emulate a Mediterranean wine drinking culture on a cold, wind swept island in northern Europe where swilling beer and spirits are the staple diet. 

Martin Plant, professor of addiction studies at the University of the West of England, didn't pull any punches: "Supermarkets at the moment are displaying the morality of the crack dealer. They have been told for several years that what they are doing is completely irresponsible. Cheap alcohol kills people."

But to flag up realistic and responsible solutions are swiftly condemned as retrograde Draconian measures, and that's exactly how the government wants them to be perceived. 

John Stuart Mill always argued for the freedom of the individual to do what they want as long as it doesn't effect anyone else. And that holds true. The disgusting spectacle of binge drinking does affect everyone. 

When will politicians realise that booze is one of Huxley's "chemical crutches" which people always turn to in times of desolation and despair. From the gin places of Hogarth (pictured above) to the current sad and destructive spectacle seen on the streets night after night. 

Alcohol in moderation is wonderful but in the hands and down the throats of young people in particular it can be dangerous. Alcohol is still a drug. And like all drugs, alcohol needs controls. It is the duty of a responsible government to bring in controls which reflect the prevailing mood of public opinion. 

The message to MPs was stark and simple: Over the last ten to 12 years, government-policy has led to an increase in the consumption of alcohol. So don't blame the kids, don't blame the parents, blame those at Westminster who hoodwinked the country and brought in the ludicrously lax licensing laws. 

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