Monday, 21 February 2011

Alcohol and social policy: "But when I'm with you I can't control myself"

Few people in our society are alcoholics, but many drink too much, as is evidenced in our town centres at weekends. And this is taking an undoubted toll on both drinkers and society. Indeed, according to reports in today’s news media, we face something of a crisis: “deaths from all alcohol-related causes — including cancers and road accidents — could claim the lives of 250,000 people in England and Wales over the coming two decades.”
And the costs involved include not only premature deaths and medical treatment of the sick, but clogged A& E units, damage to families, injuries to police and ambulance crews, lost working hours, and so on.
Clearly we have a problem. So what is to be done?
The answer being proposed by those raising the alarm is that the government should intervene. In particular, prices of alcohol should be raised. Thus the BBC reports a Department of Health spokeswoman saying,
The government has wasted no time in taking tough action to tackle problem drinking, including plans to stop supermarkets selling below-cost alcohol and working to introduce a tougher licensing regime.
And she adds that the government was taking “a bold new approach” to public health.
Frankly, in the area of politics nothing fills me with greater alarm than the news that any government is taking ‘bold new approaches’ on anything. The phrase ‘Fools rush in’ is usually the one that springs to mind.
However, it seems to me there is a deeper issue here, which is the assumption that this is basically a problem for the government to tackle through legislation.
Frankly, this is treating people like idiots, or like children.
Now of course people can behave like idiots, especially when they’ve been drinking. There is an old saying attributed to the Irish: “One drink, fine. Two drinks, plenty. Three drinks, nowhere near enough.” But it is perfectly possible for most people — alcoholics excepted — to identify the transition between that second and third drink and decide to stop.
In my student days I was rather fond of a tipple at weekends, which often left me with a hangover on Sunday mornings. One such morning, I remember walking across the student canteen with my lunch on my tray and feeling very queasy, when I thought to myself, “This is stupid. I don’t like feeling like this. I’m going to stop.” So I did. It wasn’t a great moral decision — just a realization that there were better things in life than spending a lot of money to feel ill the next day.
Here is Martin Luther making a similar point in a sermon:
God does not forbid you to drink, as do the Turks [Muslims]; he permits you to drink wine and beer: he does not make a law of it. But do not make a pig of yourself; remain a human being. If you are a human being, then keep your human self-control. (LW 51:296)
Luther’s appeal is not to the law (whether of God or Islam) but to human dignity. And to make such an appeal is itself to treat people in a dignified way.
The society that says, “There must be a law” at this (or similar) points, is already treating people as basically incapable — whether they are incapable through sin or through lack of self-control.
It says a lot for us, that in these early years of the twenty-first century, this is what some of our brightest and best assume must be the case when it comes to alcohol.
John Richardson

BTW, for those who may have missed it, the headline is a reference to The Troggs 1960s hit, "I can't control myself" (lyrics here, but watch out for pop-up ad). The wonderful thing about this particular single is that it refers to a time when self-control might have been thought necessary in a boy-girl relationship.
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  1. Yes good post, totally agree.

    Legislate, legislate, legislate, when does this approach ever really work?

  2. Three (or should that be five) questions !

    Does lack of self-control only become a sin when it harms other people – which can therefore be legislated against?

    Does self-control only become a virtue when it is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) enjoyed by Christians?

    Total depravity? Common sense? Free will?

    Beryl Polden

  3. As always a sense of proportion helps. When is Government intervention a bad thing? Almost always!
    If you are an under-age drinker you should be controlled by your parent(s). If you are an adult, you should ring-fence your own habits. Ultimately we responsible for setting our own limits and when we fail to do so and become a problem for society, that is the time for outside intervention.

  4. I agree with you about they way oour society always now seems to view legislation as the answer to every problem. As Christians we of all people should be aware of the limitations of law as a means of effecting deep-seated change.

    Nevertheless, we are in the situation where successive governments have succumbed to pressure to relax legislation about alcohol in the hope that doing so will bring about a more "responsible" attitude. We have cast off restraint and people are perishing.

  5. There's good evidence that increasing the price of alcohol reduces alcohol related harm ( If that is treating people like idiots or children then frankly I'd rather do that than watch them die of liver disease! (I've seen too much of that already)

    Elizabeth Bridcut

  6. re the 250,000 figure - that is the potential number of deaths over 20 years that could be prevented by government action according to a report in the Lancet - not a total number of deaths - see - which gives more detail than the article you've lifted the figure from re where the figure comes from

    Elizabeth Bridcut

  7. To those who have replied, perhaps especially Elizabeth, I want to say that the article was prompted by my concern about the way those who legislate - or who wish to influence legislation - view those who would be on the receiving end.

    Alcohol abuse has a long history, both in individuals and in cultures - Hogarth's Gin Lane was prompted by just such concerns. The question is how we deal with this - both individually and socially.

    It is here, however, that I would want to ask the 'legislation lobby' what it is that keeps them from drunkenness. Is it primarily because they can't afford to drink, or is it something else?

    And if it is something else (which I suspect it is, given their own likely income level and the agreed low price of drink), why cannot the same preventative impulses be inculcated in those individuals who currently and habitually drink too much? Do they feel the latter are incapable of learning? In other words, do they think they are not as morally or intellectually competent as themselves? If they do, then that is the attitude that worries me.

    Excess alcohol consumption is a cultural, as well as a personal, problem. Where the 'culture' is of excessive drinking, people drink to excess. But cultures can change, and surely a debate about cultural change is a possible way to proceed.

    Labour kind of tried that with the 'cafe culture' approach, but failed (not to my own surprise). Temperance Movements in previous centuries may have had more success.

    But surely the instinct to legislate may be limiting our imagination in this regard.

  8. I think there is also the issue of culture. A few years ago I was on holiday in Spain, and it was a local feast day – fireworks going off in the streets, that type of thing. In the evening there was a huge firework display and so at 10pm we made our way down to one of the jetties to get a good view. Because lots of other people were doing the same thing, we ended up trapped in a good spot, but with a large group of Spanish/Catalan youths behind us, with lots of bottles around them. I inwardly groaned and thought they would be rowdy as the drink took hold. This was an Englishman’s thought. The young people were actually drinking coke and 7Up – they were a pleasure to be stuck next to. Yes, a bit noisy, but the fact teenagers – many in the late teens – could spend the holiday not getting drunk was a revelation to a northerner. In fact during the whole of the holiday we only saw two people drunk on the street: you’ve guessed it, two English young women, making fools of themselves.

    So it needs more than just ‘laws’ – there needs to be a change at the heart of British society. There is something sick at heart concerning the British relationship with alcohol. It’s not just a youth thing either – on another holiday, senile delinquents caroused the streets, generally making a nuisance of themselves. Similarly, if you’ve ever worked in an A&E you learn granny’s mysterious falls can have more to do with whiskey than the decline of age!

    Ken Simpson

  9. Well, I don't get drunk because I don't want to get drunk. Plenty of people get drunk because they do want to get drunk. In many cases because they think that's part of having a good time. Other people get drunk because it makes them feel better (in the short term anyway) in the face of painful circumstances or low mood, that isn't a coping mechanism I have ever used - so far anyway. A fellow student at uni once told me she got drunk because otherwise she didn't find it easy to talk to people - I have been blessed with an outgoing personality and have never felt a need to use alcohol for that purpose. I don't drink wine because I don't like it. Lots of people enjoy wine and find that a glass or two after work is a very enjoyable way to wind down.

    Although I can't claim to be free of sinful pride I hope I can honestly say that I don't labour under the delusion that I am more morally and intellectually competent than anyone who drinks more than the recommended maximum units for their sex.

    A question - were you equally as concerned at how those legislating viewed those on the receiving end when laws about the wearing of seat belts in cars came in??

    Elizabeth Bridcut

  10. Elizabeth,

    I've been musing on your example of seatbelt-wearing, as it is indeed an interesting case in point. Here was something clearly to be benefit of the individual, which individuals refused or neglected to use, to their own detriment.

    Personally, as soon as they were introduced, I began using them whenever they were available, for the simple reason that I didn't want to get hurt if we had an accident. And I couldn't (and can't) understand why anyone wouldn't.

    However, I suggest there is a difference in attitude between providing seat belts and enforcing the wearing of seat belts.

    Briefly, the provision of seat belts by car manufacturers involves a lot of present and past factors. In this respect, the story of Ralph Nader and his Unsafe at Any Speed is highly pertinent.

    Essentially, Nader's book caused a quantum change in attitudes towards motor safety. Most importantly, it massively changed public perceptions - I am old enough to remember it, even though it happened in the USA - and I would suggest contributed directly to the present climate where car safety is considered an important feature for the consumer. Quite simply, we expect our cars to be safe and are affronted when they are not, whereas prior to Nader the public typically had less awareness or interest.

    (I am also old enough, incidentally, to have asked my parents the meaning of the line, "I couldn't unfasten my safety belt" in Chuck Berry's "Riding Along in my Automobile", and they didn't know because cars here didn't yet have 'safety belts'.)

    However, the interactions following Nader's publication were complex, involving industry (initially resistant), government (introducing legislation) and the public as consumers, producers and voters.

    I suspect we have reached the stage now, though, where most people wear seatbelts voluntarily, not because legislation says they must.

    So in terms of car safety there is a interplay between what people want which they perceive as in their interests, what they will do despite it being stupid and dangerous, and what government and industry can and will do together.

    The same, of course, could be said about smoking, which presented similar public health issues to alcohol and before the 1970s undoubtedly contributed to vast numbers of deaths in this country. Yet the number of non-smokers has increased enormously and not simply because cigarettes are expensive. (Indeed, smoking seems to be more prevalent amongst the poorest.)

    So it is not simply a case of legislation or free choice, but (at least potentially) of public perceptions and understandings which feed into behaviours on the one hand and laws on the other.

    Where my concern arises is in the impression that law and government action should be a first resort rather than a last. Even in the case of seatbelt wearing, it is worth asking why so many people wouldn't wear them when they were introduced and why some people still don't, what it is that causes this, and whether a law is the best way of resolving the issue.

    Personally, if I were to propose legislation to tackle the drinking issue, it would be simply to raise (or threaten to raise) the legal drinking age. That would be to treat the issue as a matter of maturity, and might prompt a useful public debate.

  11. As far as seat belts are concerned, I would not wear them if I had the choice - and I speak as a Christian. In my own car, I can stop the lesions that a seat belt creates on my neck by adding a neck protector and having the seat perfectly adjusted for my size (being short and squat) but in other cars, the seat belt is not always long enough to allow me to travel in comfort.

    The government is constantly reminded that its duty is to protect its citizensand it is easier to do that by legislation for all, rather than investigating the multifarious reasons why individuals do not wish to comply. This is why it is known as the "nanny" state! Children have nannies because they are incapable of always behaving rationally!

    I saw the following blog post today - and thought it was worth referral here!

    Beryl Polden