Brian Monteith: Booze pricing is wrong measure

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Can you spot anything unusual in the following imaginary news headlines? “Hearts players go without salary”, “Hibs knocked out of the Cup” or maybe “Dog bites man”, or how about “Fewer teenagers trying alcohol”?

The story of Hearts’ financial problems are well reported to the point of being taken for granted. My personal Holy Grail of seeing Hibs winning that cup for the first time since 1902 could be more accurately reported by posing the question “Who will knock Hibs out of the Cup this year?

Any news that is not unusual, indeed is so commonplace as to be predictable is regularly described as a “Dog bites man” story. Only when a man bites dog should we expect to see the headline and the exclamations of surprise.

So when a survey of young Scottish people finds that the number of teenagers that have ever tried alcohol has dropped, you might expect it to be hailed as news – good news even – because the commonplace, the predictable story of dog biting man has been reversed.

Indeed, that is how the Evening News did report the story, leading with the headline, “Youngsters see the danger signs as fewer try out drink and drugs” and then giving the details of how our local youth were showing signs of being more cautious about booze (and other drugs, too).

Sadly, it was not the same across the rest of Scotland’s media, as reporters in other papers were suckered by prepared statements from health campaigners and politicians intent on bringing more restrictions into force to penalise the sober, moderate drinkers.

The result was that, instead of focusing on the good news about falling rates of experimentation (which is, of course, a useful indicator for future trends) the revelation that one third of under-15s had tasted some alcohol in the previous week became the stick with which to beat youngsters – and sensible drinkers of all ages.

It is a fact of life that at some stage – normally during the teenage years – people will make that rite of passage and try out sex, smoking and alcohol.

It will mean some of those with poor self-discipline, an ignorance of the facts or an innocent over-enthusiasm will be party to an unplanned pregnancy, or will end up putting their health at risk.

Vomiting from the effects of smoking or drinking (or both) is the least people have to worry about – after all, that’s a healthy sign of the body saying “whoah there!” and they can learn from it.

In the case of alcohol, most teenagers will find their limit and learn how to control their consumption, while only a very small minority will not.

The vast majority of young people grow up to be well-adjusted adults – be it from learning from their own experiences, the misfortunes of others or the realisation that warnings given to them by their parents and other adults should be heeded.

Those campaigning for greater restrictions repeatedly fail to see that introducing new laws, which make consuming alcohol more difficult and more adult, are in fact feeding the idea that being able to booze makes someone look big or grown up. Putting the price of alcohol up will not change this rite of passage.

Indeed, if price were the determining factor, why do people try other drugs that are more expensive and why do people choose Buckfast in West Central Scotland and not far cheaper drinks?

The answer must lie in the cultural behaviour of people rather than the easy access to drink or its price.

Look at other surveys and you will find that, while the consumption of alcohol is falling even though it is cheaper than before, this suggests that social attitudes and cultural behaviour are changing and that new laws such as minimum pricing that penalise the sensible drinker are unnecessary.

Of course, the same people that want to control what young people do with alcohol and tobacco are often the same people that take the complete opposite view in their approach to sex education, where it is suggested that what is needed is to introduce young people to all types of sexual practices sooner than ever before.

Sex education in primary six is therefore the norm – but educate young people about how alcohol can be enjoyed if it is taken in moderation and especially with a meal? No chance, for alcohol is the next tobacco and the aim is to demonise it and denormalise its consumption.

In response to the Scottish youth survey, Vicky Crichton, the public affairs manager of Cancer Research UK, said: “There is strong evidence that drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer”. Well, let me tell her something, it’s a statistical fact but so does growing old.

It’s also a statistical fact that consuming alcohol reduces the risk of that biggest killer of all – heart disease – but don’t expect people to tell you that good news.

If we are to change the poor behaviour that accompanies the consumption of alcohol by a minority of people, we need to tackle the cultural acceptability of being violently drunk.

That’s a rite of passage we all need to learn.