The politics of tackling alcohol abuse

It’s probably fair to say that alcohol is both a social good and a social evil in modern society. On the positive side, a moderate intake of alcohol allows people to relax and disconnect from the stresses of their everyday lives. Although it varies from person to person and also depends on just how much you drink, there is a fairly broad consensus that drinking the “right” amount of alcohol is good for your physical health. On the flip side of the coin, alcohol use and abuse is broadly responsible for thousands of deaths each year. The negative influence that alcohol abuse has on society spans the spectrum of one’s imagination; from causing motoring accidents, through to physical assault and rape, poor financial decision-making, degraded social responsibility, and long-term illness such as coronary disease. When one considers in full the many and varied ills that alcohol abuse brings to the table, it is hard not to compare and contrast the vehemently strong anti-smoking sentiment that is palpable in modern Western societies to the fairly lackadaisical gaze with which we view alcohol abuse. It’s okay to be a raging drunk, but don’t you dare smoke!

Of late, there have been some soft murmurings around the traps that perhaps this broad public tolerance of alcohol abuse might be slowly coming to a close. In Australia, Kevin Rudd has recently announced a new advertising campaign targeting binge drinking, which is welcome, but of course, is not going to be enough in itself to make deep inroads into the problem. Over here in the UK, in handing down his first Budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling has put his neck out with a slightly more practical measure and one that seems unthinkable in the political climate back home; a tax hike on alcohol:

British finance minister Alistair Darling announced on Wednesday that alcohol duty will increase by 6 percent above the inflation rate with hefty rises in beer, wine and spirits coming in at midnight on Sunday.

In his first budget, Darling told parliament that beer will rise by 4 pence a pint, cider by 3p a litre, wine by 14p a bottle and spirits by 55p a bottle, marking the first rise in duties on spirits in more than a decade.

The lift on the duties on spirits is by no means insubstantial, but one has to wonder whether these increases are really going to do anything other than increase the volume of funds flowing into the government’s coffers. An extra 4 pence on a pint of beer is not going to make anybody (particularly if they are drunk!) think twice about ordering another round. Nor is another extra 14 pence on a bottle of wine going to force the country’s chardonnay socialists and blue-bloods call it a night after the first bottle or two. You could buy seven bottles of wine before noticing that you’ve even spent a pound more than usual, which is more than enough to send most people into cloud cuckoo land.

Clearly governments have it tough politically when tackling issues related to alcohol abuse, but making inroads on this issue is a worthy endeavour for any government in today’s belligerently hedonistic world. Practical measures like tax increases might be the right path to take if implemented sensibly, in a way that people can understand and comprehend. A hardline education campaign reminding society just how much trauma is caused by well-meaning folks having too much to drink is probably just what the doctor ordered. Such a campaign has worked wonders over a period of several decades in relation to tobacco. The right campaign with strong backing from civil society can do the same for alcohol abuse.