Who says Stephen Dorrell and fellow MPs on the Commons health select committee don’t have a sense of humour? The timing of their latest report just a few days before Britain faces its 2012 Olympic onslaught is proof beyond doubt.
Why so? Because the report (yet again) seeks to guide the ongoing government-led debate on how best to tackle the disastrous impact of boozing on health and public order. A high-minded and sensible report it is too. But it comes as the British state allows the Heineken brewery to take pride of place on the Olympic podium as an official supplier and sponsor of the London Games.
Yes, Heineken is up there with McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Cadbury chocolate - none of them the average cardiac surgeon’s favourite brand. But let’s stick to booze this week. Such actions (no drinks firms could have sponsored the Games if Paris had won) symbolise society’s ambiguity towards alcohol. Cigarettes, Class B drugs, tax avoidance, motorway speeding and other dangerous lifestyle choices fall into the same category.
In countless daily ways, democratic governments reflect that ambiguity. Andrew Lansley’s softly-softly approach to voluntary co-operation with the food and drinks industry is such an indicator, though it also highlights his excess stocks of rational optimism - his naivety about human behaviour as some would say.
Thus, Dorrell’s report dryly notes that drinks industry claims that advertising does not affect public attitudes or behaviour is “implausible”. It certainly is. Behaving like good corporate citizens is not an optional decision either, it’s a requirement, say the politicians.
But exactly what do we do once we have rejected the libertarian view that lifestyle choices about legal products (guns in America!) are not the state’s business. The coalition’s alcohol strategy argues that drink, too, is primarily a public order issue - rowdy binge drinking and crime - rather than a public health one. It does so on the grounds that many more people are affected by the former.
The committee slapped that notion down, and rightly so. UK alcohol consumption is now 10 per cent off its 2005 peak.
But excess is more concentrated and, as the experts reminded the MPs, a unit of alcohol does more harm to the poor - although academic studies also warn that consumption by the middle aged, the middle class and the old takes its toll.
We all know the stats: 6,669 deaths a year; 198,000 directly related hospital admissions, 1.6 million partly so; a £3.5bn cost to the NHS (70 per cent of it in hospital care); double that to the wider economy, even if we discount - and we don’t - the cost of wider family misery and breakdown. So in an era of cuts, effective action is imperative and I find it odd that free-market libertarians can’t grasp the economics, let alone the morality.
The Dorrellistas want ministers to examine the French (whose acute alco-problem forced them to tackle it sooner) and the 1991 Loi Evin that would ban ads reaching the young - UK cinema ads are outrageous - as well as banning Heineken from the Olympics. They want England to match Scotland’s new 50p a unit minimum pricing (to curb smuggling), but more targeted evidence to back it. They want weaker alcohol content per unit - a good point. But the drinks industry is on to that one and has made a “billion weaker units” pledge. If you want to have a look, find it on Mr Lansley’s official “Public Health Responsibility Deal” website.
Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian.