Ninny book of booze
Strict drinking ages are of little use to those fighting the hormonal wars of independence
In one of the more glaring political paradoxes, a government that introduced 24-hour drinking to pubs now seems increasingly committed to reducing boozing. After recent campaigns encouraging middle-class wine drinkers and especially women to cut down, yesterday's message from Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, was that children under 15 should not be permitted to drink alcohol at all, and that 15-to 17-year-olds should "not drink without the supervision of a parent or a carer".
Most parents or carers would probably drink to this, but as wisdom for actual living it stumbles like a drunk over one problem relating to government health guidelines and another that afflicts advice from this administration.
The traditional tripping point is that official instructions on how to deal with children tend to be as useful as an automobile handbook written before the invention of the wheel. How many families, with teenagers demanding to go to parties with friends, can realistically ensure that they will only be drinking in the presence of an adult? Unless, perhaps, that adult has gatecrashed the party after using a pseudonym to groom schoolchildren online.
And anyone who has fought in these wars of hormonal independence will also know that the best way of ensuring that their offspring head for the nearest bar and demand an intravenous drip stretching from the biggest keg is to tell them to have a dry night.
Perhaps, though, the plan is to enable us to pass on advice from a neutral and independent source: "Look, cupcake, the chief medical adviser says that you really shouldn't be drinking. And he's backed by Mr Balls and Mr Johnson, the education and health secretaries."
But this approach would only ensure that the word "balls" soon turned up for the second time in the conversation. And the strategy of attributing the advice to Britain's leaders, never sensible, would be especially risky now.
Sir Liam has insisted his latest prohibition notices should not be seen as an example of the nanny state. But his difficulty this time is the widespread perception of a ninny state. An economy that has been broken by greed-crazed banks and a war predicated on false intelligence is hardly a good advertisement for the efficacy of government opinion.
Politicians will protest that these situations are different: that the government does not give direct advice on, for instance, the economy. But, while it's true that no one says "buy this" or "sell that", ruling parties create a mood that influences public actions. And the Blair and Brown years followed the Thatcher era in encouraging an atmosphere of guilt-free, debt-ignorant expenditure, investment and self-pleasure which, it was suggested, would never end.
And so public scepticism is now at a peak of incredulity. For the new strictures on underage drinking, this creates an additional complication, on which John Reid, a former health secretary, once touched. In the midst of an earlier campaign to make Britons smoke and drink less, he argued that a pint and a fag were among the few pleasures available to the poorer sections of society, and it was wrong of politicians to moralise about such narcotics. This defence of overindulgence as social anaesthesia was one of the bolder political ideas of recent times, and it's tempting to apply it to the government's imbibing guidelines, whether for old or young.
Drinking too much might be seen as a reasonable response to the consequences of the government's policies in other areas. Teenagers have always been tempted to experiment with alcohol but the present generation - contemplating parents who are losing jobs, homes, pensions and savings, and are perhaps driven by these fears to greater consolation in the bottle - would, on the Reid principle, have every excuse for being found under a heap of alcopop bottles.
At the very least, politicians should reflect on whether attitudes to intervention need to be rethought. For two decades, the view of all parties has been that health is an area in which the state should intervene while almost everything else is left to the markets.
It might have been more useful if the government had issued stern warnings that the under-30s were at risk of being sold mortgages that would prove impossible to repay, or that the over-60s were in jeopardy of finding that their pensions and savings had become worthless. By intervening so selectively, the government should not be surprised if it is listened to selectively.
As he works on his next temperance press release - possibly warning that children may be at more risk of alcoholism if their parents met in a pub - the chief medical officer may have to pause and reflect that he has the misfortune to work for an administration that has driven people to drink.
# Mark Lawson
# The Guardian
# January 30, 2009
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