Friday, February 10, 2012

The real reason why drink crisis gibberish gibberish

"Never trust a man who doesn't drink" - a renowned philospher*

If you want to get yourself annoyed today, I suggest you get hold of the Irish times and turn to John Waters' column which has a headline not dissimilar to the above. Sometimes, it is difficult to know where to begin but I suppose the beginning is as reasonable a place as any.

The first line reads "We are used to politicians running scared of proposals to tackle Ireland's lethal relationship with alcohol". It is a popular myth that successive governments are under the evil control of the drinks industry, just as in the USA, right-wing commentators constantly moan about the 'liberal media" which they themselves dominate. If governments were so scared of publicans, why did they introduce the absolutely correct policies of smoking ban and rigorous enforcement of drink-driving laws? Correct as these policies are, the result has been a drastic and continuing reduction of the number of pubs, especially in rural areas.

Last Friday's Irish Times ran a report saying that alcohol consumption in Ireland reduced by 17% in the years 2001-2011 and yet today John Waters tells us that alcohol consumption increased by the same magic figure between 1996 and 2007, the "decade of the Celtic Tiger" (John very subtly links alcohol with the CT and with the EU/IMF bailout to make it seem even more evil). So which are we to believe? Are both correct, just different ways of looking at the same figures? Is it more relevant to talk about figures to 2011 or 2007, given that in the intervening 4 years, the country has changed utterly?

He goes on to say that poor people spend a greater proportion of their income on alcohol than rich people. What a massive surprise. I suspect the same is true of food expenditure, utilities and everything else, because guess what - rich people earn more than poor people! But no, John uses this completely random and useless fact to argue that Irish people use alcohol to "even out the effects of felt-inequality and to ameliorate social pain".

In John's world, the whole country is in some sort of alcohol-induced reverie that stops us from thinking straight. Foreigners are apparently queuing up to avail of John's wisdom about the lack of riots on the streets in Ireland, compared to, say, Greece and John tell them mysteriously to "look at the drinking statistics". Given that we are drinking less than we used to, I presume the foreigners deduct that we need to drink more!

No, despite the facts, we are all, politicians and plebs alike, under the malign spell of the publicans and can't think straight, that's John main argument today and the job of the government is to keep us that way.

I don't know why some Irish people drink in the pattern that they do - nothing all week and then get plastered at the weekend - but we are not unique in this; if you don't believe me spend a weekend in Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool or, indeed and British city and you will see scenes that make Temple Bar look like Salt Lake City. Binge drinking seems to be concentrated mainly in countries that have high taxes on drink and bad weather - Ireland, Britain, Scandinavia. As I have said before, it is a culture thing, not a price thing - how that is to be solved is another question entirely, but attitudes can be changed through education. The current generation of twentysomethings largely regard drink-driving as a major no-no. Surely a distaste for being drunk could also be instilled in people?

The only thing the government fear from the alcohol industry is a reduction of the massive taxes that the industry creates. I have a small shop, operating in a small sector of the market, yet even we feel we are more tax collectors than wine merchants, handing over staggering (to us!) amounts every month in duty and VAT. Increasing duty will drive people north of the border, the Dept of Finance will testify to that. A ban on below cost selling would stop the use, by supermarkets, of alcohol as a loss leader. I believe alcohol is not like other grocery products and does need to be viewed seperately and hopefully this is what the government has in mind.

The newspapers are involved in quite a lot of hand-wringing about the future of their industry - and rightly so. One of the main arguments is that any old eejit like me can voice their uninformed opinion on the internet, whereas you have to go to the traditional media to get intelligent, informed opinion.

John Waters does his best to undermine that argument today.

As Valerie Clarke, in the letters page opposite says "A light hand from parents rather than a heavy hand from the government will be more effective in the long run".

* My father, whose philosophy was renowned really only in our house.

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