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Thursday, 02 October 2014

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You’re missing the drinkers most at risk, Mr Cameron

On the subject of alcohol consumption, my old GP used to apply a very handy benchmark when doling out his health warnings.

“Eat less, exercise more. You’ll know you have a booze problem when you drink more than your doctor.” It was mildly amusing, hugely reassuring and – as it now turns out – very likely true.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the professional and middle classes are now the most frequent drinkers in the country. They’re therefore probably the most heavy drinkers.

More than 40 per cent of professional men drink more than the recommended daily limit of three to four units at least once a week... whatever that means. They may be holding life together on the surface but whether they know it or not, they’re thoroughly dependent on alcohol.

Women are catching up fast. A growing number of women can’t wait for that early-evening cool glass of something relaxing – or two or three – which they’ll pour the minute they hit home after a hard day’s wage-slaving.

Drinking (a lot) is a cultural must in this country now. It’s what we do to share down-time with our colleagues, friends and peers. It’s what we do to show we’re worldly and sophisticated, all grown up and capable.

Quite where we learned these damaging cultural lessons is arguable. But they probably started as being aspirational. When you work hard, you play hard and want to share a signal of success. It’s common to see drinking as that unmistakable sign.

My old GP understood only too well what the dangers were. He’d fallen for them himself. His coping kit – and he would chuckle when he admitted it – was a good whisky and a packet of Benson and Hedges.

How times change. No doctor would openly admit to such sins these days for fear of being struck off.

But doctors have for a long time been among the heaviest imbibers. Pressure of work, long hours, split shifts, dealing with difficult people, being able to handle – and afford it – were among my lovely old doc’s favourite excuses for his heavy drinking.

These days those in-denial justifications tend to extend beyond a red-nosed GP’s surgery. Many of us who work too hard, worry too much and have too little time for conventional socialising with equally time-poor friends, tipple a touch too much at the end of the day at home.

Working women in particular are drinking much more than they used to and can now claim the same frightening rates of liver disease as the boozy men they used to berate for being reckless, feckless and soaked.

They, according to informed worriers about Britain’s booze culture, are the real problem drinkers. They are drinking more than their doctors.

They may not be able to handle it, their livers will one day succumb to it. But they remain virtually invisible.

They’re not the ones vomiting in the gutter after a heavy Saturday night. They don’t totter around the streets in skyscraper heels, a bottle of vodka in one hand and speed-dial to emergency services in the other.

They take their poison in private – behind closed doors and drawn curtains. They can still easily afford their favourite tipple, however frequently they have to replenish their stocks.

But unhelpfully they are the ones being pointedly ignored in all the political hullabaloo now spinning around boozy Britain.

They are being overlooked by a health campaign that’s overly selective in its health concerns. Unless they ask for help – and that’s always going to be a very big ask – very little will be offered.

Quite rightly David Cameron refers to this country’s drinking record as a public scandal. He’s going to bring in an alcohol strategy to attack it. And few people could argue with the wisdom of that.

There will be a visible, humiliating, rounding up of drunks in the streets; police (should we have any left after the cuts) will be stationed in hospital emergency departments to deal with abusive drunken behaviour; a minimum pricing policy will put the cost of beers and spirits out of the reach of hard-up young people.

There’ll be regulations to force bars, pubs and late-night clubs to take responsibility for their customers’ drinking habits. Drink related crime will be targeted fiercely and without leniency. But how will any of that impact on those legions of middle-class, middle-income, sitting-room drinkers who daily down enough sauce to sink a Tupperware gin palace?

Not at all, is the short answer. Helping those hidden drinkers – fast becoming Britain’s biggest problem drinkers – overcome their addictions will need painstaking support, re-education, a huge cultural shift and a far bigger slice of NHS resources than that being eaten up by kids bingeing on cider.

Britain does have a terrible drink problem. The country’s relationship with alcohol is a difficult and dangerous one.

Floodgates opened on our drinking habits when the booze industry managed to persuade government that if 24-hour drinking were allowed in the UK – supplemented by 24/7 availability of cheap supermarket booze of every description – we’d end up with a continental-style cafe society.

Oo-la-la! We could hardly wait – a glass of wine with lunch, maybe another after work, a couple more with dinner.

Some hope. That was a plan doomed to failure – for everyone apart from purveyors of strong liquor. What went wrong? The drinking didn’t stop at continental limits. It was never going to. British drinkers aren’t made that way.

So now, while the PM prepares to sweep the streets clean of a problem Westminster created, the new broom is getting ready to miss the biggest mess.

The drinkers risking most will stay hidden and overlooked – probably in their own homes – because there’s no PR advantage in hitting the alcoholic well-off with nanny-state regulation.

Have your say

Does Mr Cameron need to go to spec savers or am I wrong in thinking both the meals and the accompanying drinks are subsidised?. To mark up the relative cost to deter those impoverished M.P.s would really put a long lasting smile on my face...
I see no reason why anyone who is there to work NEEDS to imbibe either at West Minster or at at local levels, OK.

Posted by liz on 21 February 2012 at 21:23

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