Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Simplistic response to a complex problem

The culture of binge drinking is a plague on Britain. It causes misery in some of the country's most deprived areas and transforms even the most genteel town centres into no-go areas at weekends. With this bleak context in mind, it is understandable that ministers in Scotland are considering an increase in the legal age for purchasing alcohol from off-licences and supermarkets from 18 to 21. The role of alcohol in fuelling yobbish behaviour north of the border is exacerbated by its effect on health. Scotland has one of the fastest growing rates of liver cirrhosis in the world. Does it not make sense to make alcohol harder to get hold of, if only for teenagers?

The answer is no. While one can sympathise with politicians wanting to take radical action to curb binge drinking, the remedy does not lie in simplistic legislative responses. Just as new 24-hour drinking laws did not lead to the boom in alcohol-related crime that some scaremongering press predicted, so raising the legal age of buying alcohol from off-licences will not bring about a dramatic decline in the type of anti-social behaviour associated with binge drinking.

There are several practical problems with the policy under consideration by the Scottish executive.

Allowing those aged between 18 and 21 to drink alcohol but not purchase it makes no sense. The fact that they would be able to buy alcohol in pubs and clubs would further confuse the situation. It also seems absurd that an 18-year-old will be able to vote, smoke and drink, but not buy alcohol from a supermarket.

The emphasis should be on enforcing the law, not changing it. Ample powers already exist to tackle the effects of binge drinking. In many cases, binge drinkers are underage teenagers. The police already have the power to move them on from public spaces and confiscate their alcohol.

They could also take more action against off-licences selling alcohol to the underage, or against those passing on alcohol to those not old enough to buy it for themselves. The main flaw to the proposal, however, is that it fails to grasp that Britain's binge-drinking problem, shared elsewhere in northern Europe, is a cultural one.

As such, the key to fighting it lies not in fiddling with the statute book, but in fostering a longer-term change in attitudes. Such a shift can only be achieved through a concerted education campaign that makes all of us rethink our relationship with alcohol. It is no quick fix, but it remains the only realistic way of creating a more responsible attitude towards drinking in Britain.
source: The Independent U.K

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