The new health education crusade aims to put drinking in the dock with smoking as an evil of our age, reports Ed Barrett
'Disturbing evidence about the extent of under-age drinking in Britain has been uncovered.' So begins a recent news report in the Daily Telegraph. Nostalgic images sprang to mind of young lads barely out of short trousers, draining their fifth vodka and pint of lager and saying, 'Might as well go back, I suppose, it's double PE this afternoon'. As it turns out, I could not have been wider of the mark.
Gone are the days of my youth, when the pub opposite my school relied almost exclusively on the pupils for its lunchtime business, and as long as you could reach over the bar and hand over the cash, you were welcome. Even the sweet shop sold individual fags for those whose dinner money didn't stretch to a packet of 10.
Today, you hardly ever see teenagers in pubs, or smoking in public, come to that. Yet the papers are stuffed full of stories about it. The Telegraph's report is headed '13 year olds drink until they are sick' - the implication clearly being that they are putting away prodigious quantities of the hard stuff. Yet a closer inspection reveals a less sensational situation. The second paragraph reveals that 'A survey of 1300 teenagers found that half of the 13 year olds had drunk enough to make them physically sick at some stage during the past year'. Far from being hardened drinkers, it sounds as though these queasy pubescents are merely following a familiar rite of passage and throwing up after their first experiment with the demon drink.
This is borne out by the fact that they are 'price sensitive' and their drink of choice is often cider or fortified wine - youth club classics that are rarely persisted with beyond adolescence. You would think the fact that young teenagers are still getting sick on cider should be a comfort to the health fanatics. After all, when was the last time you saw empty Woodpecker bottles strewn around a crack den, or a smack-raddled junky stumbling to the off-license for a bottle of ginger wine? Despite this, the Portman Group, on behalf of the drinks industry, is supporting ID cards for adults and initiating 'test purchasing' to crack down on retailers selling alcohol to minors.
Health campaigns these days are really just thinly-veiled moral crusades. This is clearly demonstrated by the Health Education Authority's latest bizarre initiative, aimed at encour-aging responsible drinking habits. The press release is headed: 'Fancy taking the Friday Night Challenge?' and it continues:
'The Friday Night Challenge is simple and straightforward. It is to go out on a Friday and have THE NIGHT OF YOUR LIFE. So what's the catch? It is that you have to stick to drinking within the safe daily benchmark of 2-3 units of alcohol if you're a woman and 3-4 units of alcohol if you're a man. (A unit is half a pint of ordinary strength beer, lager or cider, a pub shot of spirits or a small glass of wine.) And it goes without saying that no other substances should be contemplated!'
The leaflet goes on to warn of all the unpleasant social consequences of drinking: 'sleeping with someone you really shouldn't' or having unsafe sex; getting into danger on the way home; having to endure the ramblings of drunken friends; watching them stumble and throw up. How the latter ordeal is made more bearable by remaining sober is not explained. As a final carrot, it is pointed out that you can save money by drinking less ('What could you buy with £20 instead of getting drunk?').
Given these options, one might conclude that the best way to stay away from drunks, avoid dangerous sex and save money is to stay in and have an early night. But this would be to miss the point of the Friday Night Challenge, which is to openly display your moral superiority. The Friday Night Challenge takes its lead from the patronising campus campaigns against over-indulgence that are a feature of university life today. British students are issued with Drinkline's Big Blue Book of Booze, containing cartoons warning of the social dangers of over-indulgence. In America, the famous Animal House-style frat house toga parties are under attack. 'I think the problem of alcohol in fraternities is really getting out of hand', said Frederico Ardile, president of the Sigma Nu chapter at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 'It's about time we had a new policy.' In Japan, the National Citizens Association on Alcohol Problems is campaigning against the student initiation custom ikki nomi ('chugging alcohol') after a student died of alcohol poisoning. 'Would you like to be a murderer?', asks the campaign's poster, aimed at students who pressure their peers to 'chug'. Similar moves are afoot in France.
Sick as a dog
Drinking is set to follow smoking as a top-ranking social taboo. Alcohol was recently added to the familiar topic of drugs at a meeting on clubbing culture attended by senior government ministers. Even the new Professional Darts Council is trying to stop veteran arrowsmen like Eric Bristow from appearing pint in hand at public events. In an ironic twist, Beer Blok, a new health product made with 'natural ingredients', which is claimed to stop carbo-hydrates converting to fat stores, has been criticised for encouraging excessive drinking.
The drink police are everywhere. McDonald's staff were recently commended for phoning the police when they smelt alcohol on the breath of a customer whom they believed to be driving. Worse still, a blind man was prosecuted for biting his guide dog on the evidence of video footage from a street surveillance camera. The dog had refused to obey his master, because he had been drinking.
In New Britain, there is just one body that remains resolutely out of step with the mood of the time - the parliamentary Conservative Party, not one member of which has signed up for MP Teddy Taylor's Conservative Teetotal Club. When the Tory Party stands united behind something, you know it is a lost cause.
Reproduced from LM issue 106, December 1997/January 1998