Belfast Telegraph

A sober approach, not price, will stop alcohol abuse

By Mary Kenny

Professor Tim Stockwell is considered to be the world expert on the relationship between the price of alcohol and alcohol abuse. He is a Canadian academic and director of the Centre for Addictions Research in British Colombia.

Stockwell's advice to Westminster and the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh is firm: fix a minimum price for alcohol and you will reduce problem drinking.

David Cameron last week railed against the amount of binge drinking in society: "It drains resources in our hospitals, generates mayhem in our streets and spreads fear in our communities ... we can't go on like this." He thus proposes to introduce legislation that will make cheap booze dearer - fixing a minimum price of 40p per unit.

The low cost of alcohol is surely a cause for concern. Some liquor is cheaper than water.

You can buy a cheap can of lager for 20p at discount stores and supermarkets; you can purchase a two-litre plastic bottle of gut-rotting cider for around £2. A standard bottle of Polish vodka can be bought for about £8.

Small wonder a recent report from the Department of Health revealed that there has been an increase of 25% in deaths from liver disease in less than 10 years.

While mortality from most other diseases is falling, cirrhosis is rising at an alarming rate: more than one-in-10 liver-related deaths strikes people in their forties.

As a reformed boozer, I have come to loathe drunkenness. Inebriation is not funny: it causes untold harm - most domestic violence is fuelled by alcohol, as is much crime.

However, for all that, there must be some reservations about government fixing alcohol pricing.

Putting up the price arbitrarily can be seen as punishing the innocent alongside the guilty: there are plenty of individuals who can enjoy a bottle of wine at £3.99, or even a couple of bargain lagers, without drinking to excess.

Proposals to ban alcohol advertising are tantamount to censorship. If the product is legal, it should be legal to advertise it.

The freedom of the individual - even to do something which is bad for him, or her - must also be considered.

Professor Stockwell is insistent that minimum pricing has worked successfully in Canada, but there may be cultural aspects involved.

Canada has a tradition of Presbyterianism, which stigmatises alcohol abuse; it also has a French tradition that advances civilised drinking with meals, rather than binge-boozing. It may be that the best way of combating the abuse of alcohol is cultural change.

In the end, Cameron may be forestalled by the EU, which could rule government intervention on pricing to be illegal. Some commentators say that the recession is reducing alcohol intake - and binge drinking - anyway.

In the late Victorian period, trade unions took up the cause of temperance, when drink was seen as degrading the working man. Music halls supported temperance movements, with popular songs such as Sell No More Drink To My Father and Lips That Touch Liquor Shall Never Touch Mine.

Sinn Fein copied these sentiments with its slogan: Ireland Sober is Ireland Free.

Sometimes popular communication gets the message across better than state enforcement.

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