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Home > Culture and Society

Fancy another round (of alcohol counselling)?

10 September 2004

The 'troubled' Licensing Act ran into more problems recently as it was criticised by the Home Office and the Department of Health. The Home Office has had grief from the police over the idea of 24-hour drinking, while the DoH has said it runs contrary to the government's alcohol 'harm reduction' strategy, which consists of two ideas:

1) Tackling drink-related disorder in town centres

2) Improving treatment and support for people with alcohol problems.

At this point you might be wondering: So is the government in favour of the Licensing Act or not? Well, it all depends which bit of the government you mean. The Act was the result of the drinks industry lobbying the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which thought it was a super idea that will bring the beloved continental café culture to heathen Britain. As Kent Brockman would say, only time will tell.

Whatever happens with the Licensing Act (latest Ladbrokes odds: act becomes law as it stands: 50-1; act scrapped: 100-1; act becomes some bizarre fudge that makes little or no difference to anything: 2-1), there's something a bit weird about the government's whole stance on alcohol.

One interpretation is that the government is gamely giving people every chance to get as pissed as they want, and then plans to cure them of alcoholism. Could this be the first ever policy that combines nanny state-ism with loony tunes laissez faire deregulation? Maybe we should legalise arson and double spending on the fire service?

Another way of interpreting the alcohol strategy is that it links binge drinking with alcoholism, which is a tenuous connection. Some youthful binge drinkers may go on to develop alcoholism, and Britain's boozy culture is excellent camouflage for the actual alkie, but the majority will not become the sort of person you get at AA meetings.

If you've ever had the fortune/misfortune to go to an AA meeting you'll meet people whose lives have gradually been eaten away by a desire to drink all the time. You keep hearing the same stories: people turning up for work drunk, ruining family activities by being drunk, etc. It's actually a bit like Hollywood movies about alcoholism, but with less tedium about being 'in denial'. (It's hard to be in denial about having a drink problem when you popped out to pick up the kids from school three days ago and have just woken up in a park unable to remember where both your car and children are.)

These people need help - alcoholism may not be a disease in the sense of cancer, but it can certainly be regarded as a powerful, even uncontrollable, compulsion. The problem is, it's different to binge drinking. Binge drinking is a social phenomenon, while alcoholism is surely more of a long-term, personal psychological issue.

Both problems should be tackled, but the overall government approach smacks of yet more muddle and bolted-on solutions. It also implies the government knew the Licensing Act was going to be messy, so it just promoted the alcohol harm reduction strategy to show it was serious about the evils of drink. Is this policy-making or government by PR?

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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