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Guardian Weekend – Under the Influence

Britain is sick. At least four nights in 10 we are out of it. Suspicious of the abstemious and jealous of other people’s hangovers, we are a nation of caners forever seeking ways to escape the pressures of consciousness.

For more than a decade it was pills and capsules that took our minds off the family, money, sex and success. But now we have returned to what biochemists deride as the ‘stupid molecule’, C2H5OH or alcohol, a substance with a paltry chemical structure that in its pure form is so dull that only the ‘dirt in the drink’ – the sugar, hops or barley – make it attractive.

Nevertheless, it is alcohol that now facilitates Britain’s chemical dreaming. We are drinking younger, for longer, faster and cheaper. The real price of what we down has halved since the Seventies and the number of places where we can buy and consume it has multiplied. If you are aged 11 and living in Britain you are probably drinking once a week. Nine per cent of British boys aged 12 describe themselves as regular boozers. By the age of 13 those who drink out-number those who don’t. By 16, one quarter of teenagers have three or more binge drinking sessions each month. But what has really cranked the figures up is women. Working, earning, independent, out of the home and in the pub, the number of young women drinking excessively has more than doubled in the past decade, to encompass almost one quarter of the female population, with British women aged between 18 and 24 drinking more than in any other European country.

Our more egalitarian society has become mesmerised by alcohol, the office of National Statistics finding that we now consume 121 per cent more than we did 50 years ago, each of us draining every year the equivalent of 28 bottles of vodka. Who has not come back from a foreign holiday to notice that our friends and neighbours seem a little more aggressive and a lot more drunken than those we have spent time with abroad? Listen in and you can hear the British talking about getting smashed all the time.

The government claimed to be concerned too. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that binge drinking risked becoming the ‘new British disease’. The Number 10 Strategy Unit, Blair’s think-tank, had spent 19 months investigating the issue and recommended tough new policies to curb drinkingas part of an Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy. This summer, some of these recommendations unfolded. Boozed-up brawlers were issued £80 fixed penalty notices. Mounted police corralled the pissed into ‘drunk tanks’. Pop-up urinals were introduced to absorb some of the night’s urine (10 of them in the West End of London alone forecast to collect 12,000 gallons). There was a moratorium on Happy Hour, ‘two for one’ and ‘all you can drink for a tenner’.

But the government cautioned it was not banging the temperance tambourine. For most of us there was nothing to panic about. Blair wrote in the forward to his report: ‘The aim is to target alcohol-related harm and its causes without interfering with the pleasure enjoyed by the millions of people who drink responsibly.’ Only binge and chronic drinkers needed to worry, the government stated. And in case we were unsure about who that included, the former were categorised as mostly men who ‘drink to get drunk and are likely to be aged under 25’, consuming in large groups, after work or on a Friday or Saturday evening. The latter were ‘drinkers aged over 30, two thirds of whom are men’ who drink over 50 units a week, the one third that were women consuming more than 35 units.

However, while the drinks manufacturers and the Cabinet feted the new strategy, the medical establishment warned that it would do nothing to prevent the health crisis that was already upon us – a whole generation of 20 and 30-somethings threatened by alcohol-induced cirrhosis and cancers of the throat, rectum, liver and breast. The scientific team that advised Blair began to distance itself from his report, characterising its conclusions and recommendations as dangerously flawed. They also accused the government of burying the evidence of Britain’s overall drunkenness to accommodate the powerful drinks industry.

Sir Richard Doll, the founding father of modern epidemiology, who made the link between smoking and cancer back in 1954, together with the world’s leading addiction experts, told Weekend that deaths from liver cirrhosis, a prime indicator used to measure alcohol-related harm, had risen in Britain over 30 years by a staggering 959 per cent among men aged between 25 and 44, and 924 percent among women. However, in Blair’s report the only reference to liver cirrhosis was for chronic drinkers among whom rates had doubled over the last 10 years. Although alcohol consumption in the UK had increased by 100 per cent over three decades at a time when France and Italy had halved drinking, Blair’s report presented figures from 1999 that placed Britain towards the bottom of the European drinking table.

The scientists accused the government of relying on an outmoded gauge to measure how much we drink, enabling it to downsize the scale of the British habit. Sensible, binge or chronic drinking levels are all defined in Blair’s report according to ‘units of alcohol’, a measure that has not been updated since 1985 when four ‘units’ (the daily sensible limit) equalled two pints of beer or four glasses of wine or two double brandies. For most people a unit still represents a pint, a glass of wine or a spirit with a mixer. However, in reality our drinks are far stronger than in 1985, come in larger measures and the only reliable way for us to know how much we have drunk is to use a cumbersome formula, multiplying the number of millilitres we consume by the drink’s percentage proof (alcohol by volume or ABV%) and then dividing by one thousand. And so if armed with a calculator, three deep at the bar with Britney’s Toxic blaring from the speakers, you would discover that a standard glass of wine in a pub (175ml) is now 2.3 units as it contains 50 millilitres more wine than in 1985 and on average is 5 per cent stronger, while a pint of Stella Artois is approximately three units.

Reconsidering the Downing Street definition of ‘the minority’ of binge and chronic drinkers in the light of this more accurate calculation, the former is a generic description of every British weekend and the latter equates to less than two-and-a-half pints or three glasses of wine a night for men, and one-and-a-half pints or two glasses of wine a night for women. Surely that constitutes almost everyone we know.

And yet the government refused to advise us to drink less. Sir Michael Marmot, Professor of Epidemiology at University College, London, said: ‘We advised the government that it had to reduce our overall drinking levels rather than arresting a few people in the street. Advertising should be banned. The number of venues where we drink must be reduced. The price of what we drink should be raised. Who can seriously envisage a comprehensive alcohol policy that is blind to how much alcohol is being consumed?’

Blair can. And a simple arithmetic formula might go some way to explaining why. Alcohol-related harm, according to the PM’s report, was valued at £1.7 billion spent by the NHS, plus £95 million invested in specialist NHS alcohol treatment programmes, plus £7.3 billion to combat crime and anti-social behaviour, plus £6.4 billion incurred by loss of productivity, plus £4.7 billion human and emotional cost of alcohol to the family, equalling a loss of £21.05 billion. However, income from the drinks industry is more than £30 billion a year, incorporating £7 billion in excise duties paid to the government plus one million jobs created. So subtracting one from the other leaves 8.9 billion reasons why Britain is likely to remain drunk.

The story of how we became so inebriated, like that of how the government has sidelined medical opinion on our rehabilitation, hinges on the aggressiveness of a rampant drinks industry, the short termism of two laissez-fair Tory governments that spawned it, and two Cool Britannia New Labour administrations that have been desperate not be seen as the anti party Party. Take our word for it – we are the mob in the street.

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