Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Eric Waugh: Why Gareth’s a victim of our failure to tackle drink culture

The case of Gareth Anderson, the teenage victim who has ruined his liver with booze, is agony writ large.

You, the moderate imbiber, the teetotaller, the middle-aged gent of ample girth who prides himself that “I can hold my drink” — all of you will deplore the death sentence this young fellow has brought upon himself.

His parents are so distraught as to go to court because, without a transplant, the doctors say their son is likely to have only a few weeks left. But a transplant is not available for him at this moment.

Doctors say he must show himself to have stopped drinking for six months before he can even go on the waiting list. He has not got that time. But that is the rule throughout the UK and the Republic, where demand for transplants greatly exceeds supply.

Gareth's cause has attracted support from all the major parties; but the Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey, is reluctant to |intervene in an issue which |depends upon the judgement |of professionals.

He is correct in this — but that is not to say that he and the other ministers and parties in the Assembly are exonerated and freed of all responsibility for the social problem, growing fast, of which this case is only the latest example.

I say Gareth Anderson is a victim and I choose my word carefully, because, sadly, he is. Governments have failed him by failing to handle the alcohol problem. Restrictions are unpopular. The taxes are nice. The Treasury will take in £13bn this year in alcohol duty. But, with his ill-advised romp into 24-hour opening, Blair made a new mess of a vexed issue. So much so that the Government now spends some £20bn a year paying for the consequences of over-indulgence in liquor.

Four years ago, there was much discussion about a bill in the Republic to apply new restrictions to liquor promotion. The liquor companies won a reprieve, pleading that they would police themselves. Small-type addenda duly appeared in the margins of their publicity inviting clients to use the product “responsibly”. We are long past the hour of exhortation: it has not worked.

Now the Conservatives at Westminster are proposing more punitive duties to put up the price of the tipples favoured by the young binge drinkers; others urge more policing of the off-licences where the under-age are sold booze. But these would be ineffective sticking-plasters on a gaping wound.

The price of alcohol relative to the average UK wage has halved since the 1960s. So alcohol-related deaths from liver disease have doubled in the last 15 years.

Drunken youngsters are now part of the UK and the Republic's urban weekend.

The matter has now reached the stage where only a profound change in the culture will serve.

I spent some time in France recently. From start to finish, travelling from north to south, I did not see one drunk. I did not see a single individual drinking in public, other than those having a quiet drink in a pavement cafe.

The scene, on warm evenings, part of the time in a resort full of youths enjoying themselves, was lively — but quite decorous.

It is important to ask why so many of our youths are so obscenely coarse in their indulgence, so indifferent to its effects, and the French are not.

Years ago, French governments recognised they had an alcohol problem: they still do — but they are tackling it where it counts. Under French law, liquor advertisements can show only a representation of the product, not people using it. There is no liquor advertising whatsoever on television or in the cinema; and the Loi Evin forbids all alcohol promotion at sporting events.

The liquor companies in the UK and the Republic have a product to sell; not surprisingly, they target the young, and — increasingly — young women, with their message of the good life.

A recent survey south of the border demonstrates the result; one in three 15 and 16-year-olds is binge-drinking three or more times a month. In the UK, a quarter of all violent assaults are now carried out by women. No wonder, when soakers are tempted with tickets to functions promising all the beer one can drink!

So, Michael McGimpsey's duty is clear. His role may not be to intervene in the current poignant tragedy. But he should use it to make the case at once for action by the Executive. Need anyone now ask for further evidence that the need is urgent?

But London still requires a hefty push in this. An election is nigh and politicians are chary of making unpopular speeches.

There is no reason why that push should not come from a united effort, co-ordinated on both sides of the Irish border. They would listen to us if we moved. And how!

They know the Irish like their drink.

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