| 5.2°C Belfast

Let's sober up and stand up to booze industry bullies

It's that time of year again - pubs full of gurning office workers wearing paper hats and pulling crackers, downing pints by the bucket-load - all in the name of seasonal good cheer.

Cutbacks mean that staff parties are no longer the lavish affairs of yesteryear, but many people still can't get through December without consuming a massive amount of booze.

As a country, a worrying number of us are bingers and December is when we justify it in the name of Christmas.

The recession has made very little difference - recent figures show that Germany, France and Italy have all cut their alcohol intake by between 30%-50% over the past 30 years, whereas we actually drank almost 10% more over the same period. And what happens when we think we are perfectly capable of driving home, or dropping the kids off at school the next morning? Accidents, that's what.

Some road safety campaigners advocate a total ban on alcohol consumption for anyone getting behind the wheel of a car. A brave sentiment - and about as likely to become law as I am to rule this country.

Look at the map of Europe, coloured according the drink-driving limits, and you see that we are out on a limb, allowing 80mg per 100ml of blood. There is zero tolerance across a whole swath of eastern Europe and Russia, from Slovakia and Slovenia through to Hungary.

In Estonia, drivers are allowed only 20mg of alcohol - the same level applied to airline pilots. In virtually all the rest of Europe, from France through to Spain, Germany and Italy, the level is 50mg - the level our Government said it would adopt until it chickened out last year, citing the damage such a move would do to the fragile rural economy and claiming no more lives would be saved.

They said lowering the drinking limits would penalise country dwellers who were forced to use a car to reach the pub - not exactly a massive section of the electorate.

Surely the real reason they didn't change the drink-driving laws was lobbying by drinks manufacturers, who still think the rise in drink-related health issues is nothing to do with cheap booze.

Why are MPs so in thrall to people who create harmful alcoholic drinks? Don't tell me they're concerned about our human right to get plastered.

I don't think the Christmas anti-drink-driving campaign is enough of a deterrent - the chances of being spotted driving back from a night in the pub are not high enough.

Banning drivers from imbibing any alcohol is a drastic move, but then we aren't exactly renowned for being sensible.

Do you know many people who can have just the one drink, especially when surrounded by friends in a party mood? That's why dropping our drink-driving level to 50mg wouldn't work.

In spite of all those health campaigns and endless moaning about liver disease, we're choosing to binge-drink even more.

One-in-six of all deaths on the road involves booze and the number of young people who drink and drive is rising rapidly.

Doctors now say there is a huge increase in the number of young people suffering from liver damage. Terminal liver disease is afflicting young adults in their late twenties and early thirties - and the biggest increases, unsurprisingly, are in areas where unemployment and poverty are high.

How can we ignore these warning signs? Banning drivers from drinking puts down a marker.

Rural communities could be given grants to fund subsidised taxi services. In towns, more buses and trains should run into the night - money well spent if overall health improves.

The booze industry is run by smart bullies and our politicians ought to confront them before we do ourselves any more harm.