John Harris

Journalist & Author

The alcohol and the ecstasy: prejudice drowns out sense | John Harris

The government’s rank relationship with the drinks industry contributes to a twisted logic that contorts policy on intoxicants

Time, then, for another row about Britain’s alcohol policy. In case you missed it, the government announced a new minimum-pricing regime that was meant to indicate a new drive against problem drinking, but instead proved that Westminster and Whitehall are as in thrall to the brewing industry as ever. Now, three academics have used a piece in the Lancet to damn these plans as “inconsequential” and accuse ministers of lacking “clear aspiration to reduce the impact of cheap, readily available and heavily marketed alcohol on individuals and society”. This is, of course, a howling understatement.

In support of their case, they cite the fact that the UK’s death rate from liver disease is twice the figure of 25 years ago, and double that of – sobering, this one – Australia. At our current rate of increase, there will be 9,000 extra such deaths in the next 10 years – and in total, deaths traceable to alcohol between now and 2021 are likely to come in at between 160,000 and 250,000. Meanwhile, the price of booze relative to incomes sits at an all-time low, and the report’s authors thus make the kind of claim that while stating the obvious is still repeated as if it were hotly controversial: “UK drinks producers and retailers are reliant on people risking their health to provide profit.”

This is what the conversation about alcohol abuse is like: the low hum of the incontrovertibly true endlessly drowned out by the delusional pronouncements of the booze industry.

Another example: in today’s coverage of the Lancet report, there has been much mention of a study by people at the University Of Sheffield, commissioned by the last government – in which sizable amounts of public money were spent to prove that if the price of alcohol went up (no, really), we would drink less. Putting a floor on alcohol pricing of 50p per unit, the research suggested, would save 3,000 lives a year – and the suggestion was duly endorsed by the chief medical officer and the Association of Chief Police Officers. But so what? The alcohol conglomerates then lobbied like hell, and if anyone hoped the 45p minimum mooted by the SNP government in Scotland might point the way ahead, even that modest proposal quickly wilted (here, the industry was truly brazen: when provisions for minimum pricing were removed from the relevant legislation, opposition MSPs all received a crate of ale from SAB Miller, the producers of Peroni, Pilsner Urquell and Grolsch).

So on and on we go: my local corner shop is doing three bottles of Californian plonk for £10, a slab of lager at the local supermarket costs much the same, and from a pessimistic perspective, the national condition often threatens to come down to a mixture of anger, violence and slurred speech. This is not, just to make it clear, to deny that booze is a pleasant and useful drug, or that it is as central to our national culture as sarcasm and bad weather – but merely to point out that its problematic aspects are becoming unavoidable, and that there is something truly rank about the cuddly relationship between its producers and the government.

Meanwhile, another recent spate of headlines point up the screwed-up logic that so contorts official attitudes to intoxicants, and our use of them. I’ll quote from the Observer’s coverage:

“There is no evidence that ecstasy causes brain damage, according to one of the largest studies into the effects of the drug. Too many previous studies made over-arching conclusions from insufficient data, say the scientists responsible for the research, and the drug’s dangers have been greatly exaggerated.”

Against the sound of millions of people emitting a massed sigh of relief, that story closed with a quote from one of the study’s authors:

“Ecstasy consumption is dangerous because illegally made pills often contain contaminants that can have harmful side-effects.”

In other words, the very different approaches to E and alcohol represent prejudice frozen into policy – which, while cirrhosis and the rest run rampant, looks titanically unlikely to change. The conclusion is unavoidable: at some point in the distant future, people will look back and think us quite, quite mad.

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