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Marc My Words November 19 2004

Marc My Words November 19 2004

The avoidable death of 19 year old Willy Cranswick through alcohol abuse will raise the call for tougher alcohol laws .It is an understandable reaction. While everyone seems to want to blame the industry, the bar manager, and even that nebulous concept, the culture of binge drinking, we should acknowledge that Willy himself was complicit; at 19 years he could have made different choices. Although we can put some blame on the bar manager for not monitoring the clearly dangerous manner in which Willy was drinking, it was Willy's own choice to consume the staggering number of 24 double bourbons in just four hours. No one forced him..he was of legal age..and he died.

Another drink ... or a re-think?

As the festive season approaches, there is a tendency to relax a bit in anticipation of the impending holidays and also - with sometimes tragic results - there is the prospect of a sharp rise in alcohol related accidents and admissions to hospital.

With the round of pre-Christmas functions and participation in the obligatory turkey, plum pud and merriment will be the news that families may be gifting coffins rather than presents to their loved ones. Alcohol-related outbursts of violence (domestic or otherwise), over-consumption and the number of car accidents will rise, and the finger pointing will begin. The blame will mostly be spread everywhere, but not where the responsibility truly is.

Then, again.there will be the usual outlandish claims from the temperance killjoys who will blame legislation; advertising; the hospitality industry; wine, beer and spirit merchants; the decline of morality, Western civilization and so on, as leading causes. Of course, all of these do play a part.

If we had known then what we know now, (or at least spent more time thinking about it), I doubt there would have been much appetite to lower the drinking age. The result has been an unmitigated disaster - not, I might add, because of the lowering of the age to eighteen itself, but because the enforcement has been utterly feeble. To see twelve year olds curled up in their own vomit, (as I did when I was an invited guest in a police squad car on patrol), is a national tragedy. I believe that this disgraceful state of affairs has largely come about because we have collectively lowered the standards of social behaviour that we are prepared to accept.

It isn't just about the law governing the legal age to consume alcohol; it's about the corresponding responsibilities that we expect in return for the civil liberties we bestow.

Certainly advertising must bear some responsibility. The alcohol industry should be held to a high standard rather than simply being banned from advertising their legitimate wares. There have been mutterings to ban all liquor advertising but we must resist the temptation for simplistic solutions that may actually fuel the desire for a quasi-banned product. Alcohol has been banned in Sweden, for example, for more than 25 years, and rather than decreasing sales there has been an increase of eight percent!

Equally, we don't want to start putting mindless warning labels on bottles that will develop into an escalation of graphic pictorial depictions of livers besieged by sclerosis, of alcohol-related car crashes or babies with foetal alcohol syndrome. If those strategies work then let's place equivalent warnings on cars - right across the driver's seat door; on kitchen knives; on candles; or anything that just might be implicated in some negative statistic. If we went down that road we might as well start tattooing violent offenders on their foreheads as a warning to others (I bet there would be some who really would cheer that idea too)!

Similarly, those who confuse the issue of alcohol with other products such as cannabis, party drugs and so on should be reminded of a main difference; a couple of glasses of wine a day add health benefits whereas the former undermine good health. Did you know that a daily mug of beer was given in English schools as a way to add value to the daily nutritional intake, (I would have enjoyed school more!)
As I see it, the problem of youth alcohol abuse is ultimately an issue of parental responsibility. I'm not trying to dump on parents again but.parents are the first people in a child's life and their influence in shaping their child's views on alcohol cannot be underestimated. Legislation may set the rules of the game but parents are the first port of call in showing how the game is played. Parental alcohol abuse will be the most determining aspect to a child's later views - parents are the role models and their example will colour the young person's opinions and behaviour for life. It is a heady responsibility but that is the role of the parent.

Of course, not all alcohol abuse is confined to youth - many adults need to take stock of their own responsibility in how they choose to handle their alcohol. To those who seek help - help should be made available. But to those who see alcohol as an excuse for inexcusable behaviour, strong deterrents must be the appropriate response. I believe the blood alcohol level for legal driving should be lowered to zero for those under 25 and halved for those over that age.

I am also of the opinion that we should not take alcohol consumption to be a mitigating factor when considering an appropriate sentence for crimes committed under the influence. Furthermore those who drive while intoxicated should, in my view, be charged with causing public endangerment with a dangerous weapon. The point is we do not have to tolerate alcohol abuse. That's where our real efforts should be directed rather than trying to make criminals of us all. But then.most laws are like that. We tend to knee-jerk some legislation for the few and end up curtailing the freedoms of the many.

We need to start exercising a bit of discernment and go after abuse instead of use. Only then will we really get the balance right.


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