Whether or not David Cameron rushed forward today’s move on alcohol pricing to distract from the granny tax row, I am pleased he has shown that the issue of Britain’s drink problem is firmly on the agenda.
When I was making a recent Panorama on ‘Britain’s Hidden Alcoholics’ I was aware that the Prime Minister and Health Secretary Andrew Lansley were on different sides of this argument. Cameron having given Lansley a lot of leeway in relation to the Health and Social Care Bill, he clearly decided this time he would lead the way.
It is a controversial move, one which will anger the well organised alcohol lobbies, and drinkers who manage to drink reasonably and responsibly and will feel they are being punished for the behaviour of a minority. But just as the country finally had to face up to the health risks of smoking, surely the time has come to face up properly to the damage alcohol does to people’s health, work, families and communities. It is time too to ask why so many Brits seem to want fairly regular doses of oblivion.
As I have been reminded on twitter this morning, just as ex-smokers can become the fiercest anti-tobacco voices(guilty), so reformed drunks (guilty) can become what one twitterer called ‘a pain in the arse.’
But if there was one thing researching Panorama showed me it was that we are kidding ourselves if we think alcohol abuse is a problem for a small minority.
Of course people who are already finding their living standards squeezed will be hacked off at a further hike in the cost of booze. But the other thing my film showed up is that for all the focus on binge drinking in pubs ands clubs, and the violence that goes with it, the real boom has been in drinking at home, with alcohol both cheap and in ever ready supply.
Every major cause of death via smoking, thanks to science and the NHS, and thanks to government action, is on the decline. Liver disease is going in the opposite direction. People are getting it younger, and women have caught up with men. It is an epidemic.
Pricing is one way to address it. Looking at the marketing is important. So is education in schools and through the media. There has to be cultural change too from a situation we have today where in most social circles, it is the non drinker rather than the drinker who feels under pressure to explain why they’d rather not.
Someone who takes a different point of view protested to me that Britain has always been a drinking nation and always will be. Maybe. But my sense is of the country bombarded with a tsunami of marketing, sitting on a boozequake, and unless we face up to it, we will pay a far heavier price than a rise on supermarket beer, wine and spirits.