Opinion: Call last orders on this culture of booze

Paul Watson’s recent heart-wrenching BBC2 documentary, Rain in my Heart, showing the effect of alcoholism on four people in a Kent town, could not have been more timely. Earlier this month, it was revealed that under-age drinking has now spiralled out of control. Last week, we learned that we will now be able to buy alcohol even more cheaply from the continent, via the internet.

Rain in my Heart, which finally restored some welcome dignity and accuracy to the term “reality TV” cut right through any public or private complacency about the problems of alcohol. Uncomfortably close up shots of a jaundiced face, a man vomiting uncontrollably onto his bedroom floor or a distraught wife, her face convulsed with tears, kept an unrelenting focus on the human cost of heavy drinking.

It also triggered intense discussion. Straight after the film was shown on BBC, there was a Newsnight discussion with the GP featured in Watson’s film, Dr Gray Smith-Laing, a representative of the drinks industry, and a Labour MP.

The man from the drinks industry looked miserable throughout, largely because he was the butt of Paxman’s legendary contempt. By contrast, public servant Dr Gray Smith-Laing was treated as something of a hero. One thing is clear: we in Britain have become “the drunks of Europe”, our use of alcohol is “pernicious” (Watson’s words) as anyone can see should they  venture into most town centres late on a weekend night. Of all the drugs available in the UK, alcohol is responsible for more damage and homicides than all the other drugs put together. Forty-four per cent of violent crime is alcohol-related. Seventy per cent of hospital admissions at the weekend are associated with drinking.

A lot of that is down to the increased drunkenness among teenagers. The number of under-18s admitted to hospital because of alcohol abuse has jumped 20 per cent in the past five years. Thousands of youngsters are being admitted to hospital every year with alcohol-related conditions. About 20 under-18s a day are diagnosed with problems linked to excessive drinking, ranging from alcohol poisoning to behavioural disorders.

But part of the power of Rain in my Heart was that it brought the problem of problem drinking back to us all. It is not just wild teenagers and abused men or women who drink too much. Hundreds and thousands of “high functioning” respectable citizens, none of whom could remotely be called alcoholics, are knocking back the booze on a regular basis. As Paul Watson observed last week, drink is one way of “medicating” our way out of awareness of life’s pressures.

It is remarkably easy to go over the government’s recommended limits on alcohol. For example: two to three units, the  recommended daily intake for women, means literally two half pints of a mild beer or two small glasses of a low potency wine.

Swig  back two large glasses of a heavier red wine and you could easily be taking in double, or more, of the amount you should.

Let’s hope that Watson’s film renews pressure on both the government and drinks industry. This month, health secretary Patricia Hewitt wrote to Gordon Brown requesting a “swingeing” increase in tax on alcopops and other drinks in the next budget, to price it beyond the reach of youngsters’ earnings or pocket money.

It is also time for the drinks industry, making a handsome profit out of others headaches, and far worse, to pay out more towards social care. Rain in my Heart showed how important a part proper after care plays in saving individual drinkers’ lives.

A civilised society should be prepared to meet these costs, whatever our individual and collective views of the individuals involved.

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