There is a very thought-provoking article in the BBC's website magazine this week, entitled "Is the alcohol message all wrong?" It's by Kate Fox, who calls herself a social anthropologist, and I think she's onto something.
... if you want examples of bizarre beliefs and weird customs, you need look no further than our attitude to drinking and our drinking habits. Pick up any newspaper and you will read that we are a nation of loutish binge-drinkers - that we drink too much, too young, too fast - and that it makes us violent, promiscuous, anti-social and generally obnoxious.Now I know the Libertarian blogosphere's reaction to this is going to be that she is wrong - we are not a nation of problem drinkers, just a nation with some problem drinkers, and that we are drinking less than ever before, and so on. (This is Longrider's take on it.) That may be true in strict terms, but look at the photo above, multiply it a hundred times every Friday and Saturday night across every town in the UK, and then think about how many times you saw something like that 30 years ago. I work with a lot of young people, and I have seen my own children grow through the teens/early 20s phase, and I can tell you for a fact that they abuse alcohol in a way that I would have been horrified by when I was that age - and I wasn't in any sense a teetotaller. Yes, we got wrecked every now and again, but we didn't drink to oblivion twice a week or more, we didn't 'pre-load' on shorts before we even went out to the pub, and we did it on stuff like beer and cider, not vodka shots lined up on a table. And being so drunk that you couldn't stand up in the street and shat your pants in the taxi on the way home was a source of embarrassment, not pride.
Yes, I think we have a problem, so I agree with Ms Fox so far. She believes, however, that the changes that happen to us when we are drunk are culturally-determined, rather than a simple chemical matter of what alcohol does to the system.
The problem is that we Brits believe that alcohol has magical powers - that it causes us to shed our inhibitions and become aggressive, promiscuous, disorderly and even violent.
But we are wrong.
In high doses, alcohol impairs our reaction times, muscle control, co-ordination, short-term memory, perceptual field, cognitive abilities and ability to speak clearly. But it does not cause us selectively to break specific social rules. It does not cause us to say, "Oi, what you lookin' at?" and start punching each other. Nor does it cause us to say, "Hey babe, fancy a shag?" and start groping each other.
In other words, the ethanol affects us in certain ways, generally pleasurable, but how we translate that into behaviour is a product of what we and our society expect to happen, rather than any intrinsic property of the booze. I'm sure there is something in this. The Northern European nations tend to be the ones who get aggressive after a few scoops - and getting out of it on mead or ale goes right back to the Anglo-Saxons and beyond. The French and Italians don't do this, even though (statistics tell us) they drink far more in terms of alcoholic 'units' than we do.
I never saw my Dad drunk. The most I ever saw him drink was a half of bitter, and that after some persuasion by me. So I had nothing to base my assumptions on. If I had had a father who wrecked the house and hospitalised my Mum after a night on the piss, I might have had very different expectations of what I would feel like and do after drinking. As it is, I get more chatty than usual, more confident, more affectionate (everyone becomes my lifetime best mate) and, in extremis, the beer goggles develop and every female in the room becomes an irrestistible siren worth walking on broken glass for. I'm totally harmless in my cups, although you may have to be firmer than usual in resisting my advances if you are female, have most of your own teeth and don't resemble Shrek.
This basic fact has been proved time and again, not just in qualitative cross-cultural research, but also in carefully controlled scientific experiments - double-blind, placebos and all. To put it very simply, the experiments show that when people think they are drinking alcohol, they behave according to their cultural beliefs about the behavioural effects of alcohol.
But a lot of people in the UK do have problems with drink. They get violent, and they cause endless amounts of disorder, pain and grief. The standard response to this is to make more regulations. Restrict the availability of alcohol, bung up the price, insist on more licenses and permits, close down pubs where the trouble starts, and so on. No-one ever suggests that we just enforce the laws we already have against glassing people, or beating them to a pulp because they looked at you funny. Here's a start: when you commit an offence while drunk, you get exactly the punishment you would have had if you had been sober, and 'it was the drink, yer Honour' is never a mitigation.
I expected (silly me) Kate Fox's article - BBC-approved, after all - to go up a gear at this point and start talking about measures (legislative, not pub), and strategies, and campaigns. I was pleasantly surprised to find her taking a very different tack:
But it is possible to change our drinking culture. Cultural shifts happen all the time, and there is extensive evidence (again from carefully controlled experiments, conducted in natural settings such as bars and nightclubs) to show that it doesn't take much to effect dramatic changes in how people behave when they drink.
These experiments show that even when people are very drunk, if they are given an incentive (either financial reward or even just social approval) they are perfectly capable of remaining in complete control of their behaviour - of behaving as though they were totally sober.
And how are these changes to be brought about?
To achieve these changes, we need a complete and radical re-think of the aims and messages of all alcohol-education campaigns. So far, these efforts have perpetuated or even exacerbated the problem, because almost all of them simply reinforce our beliefs about the magical disinhibiting powers of alcohol.
The drinkaware website, for example, warns young people that a mere three pints of beer (ie a perfectly normal evening out) "can lead to anti-social, aggressive and violent behaviour", that "you might start saying things you don't mean and behaving out of character", that alcohol is implicated in a high percentage of sexual offences and street crimes, and that the morning after "you may wonder what you did the night before".
I would like to see a complete change of focus, with all alcohol-education and awareness campaigns designed specifically to challenge these beliefs - to get across the message that a) alcohol does not cause disinhibition (aggressive, sexual or otherwise) and that b) even when you are drunk, you are in control of and have total responsibility for your actions and behaviour.
I agree with that last bit, a lot.
Alcohol education will have achieved its ultimate goal not when young people in this country are afraid of alcohol and avoid it because it is toxic and dangerous, but when they are frankly just a little bit bored by it, when they don't need to be told not to binge-drink vodka shots, any more than they now need to be told not to swig down 15 double espressos in quick succession.
Even the silliest teenagers would not dream of doing that. And not because they have been educated about the dangers of a caffeine overdose - although there undoubtedly are such dangers - but because it would just be daft, what would be the point?
What we should be aiming for is a culture where you don't need alcohol-education programmes, any more than we now need coffee or tea education programmes.
And to develop the point further:
If I were given total power, I could very easily engineer a nation in which coffee would become a huge social problem - a nation in which young people would binge-drink coffee every Friday and Saturday night and then rampage around town centres being anti-social, getting into fights and having unprotected sex in random one-night stands. [She never hung with the Mods and Rockers, then - Ed.]
I would restrict access to coffee, thus immediately giving it highly desirable forbidden-fruit status. Then I would issue lots of dire warnings about the dangerously disinhibiting effects of coffee.
I would make sure everyone knew that even a mere three cups (six "units") of coffee "can lead to anti-social, aggressive and violent behaviour", and sexual promiscuity, thus instantly giving young people a powerful motive to binge-drink double espressos, and a perfect excuse to behave very badly after doing so.
She concludes by saying that the Government and drinks industry are doing almost exactly the wrong things at the moment. I'm pretty sure she is right in that.