Published: 27/06/2002, Volume II2, No. 5811 Page 23
As if the breakfast-time drinking habits of World Cup fans were not enough to turn my thoughts to the current wave of alcoholic excess, I spent the weekend of England's defeat by Brazil at the wedding of two RAF pilots in Scotland. Drink, Scotland and the RAF make a potent brew, though by the time Mrs White and I retired to bed, the bride (she flies helicopters), groom (Tornadoes) and their friends were still behaving pretty well, by RAF standards.
On our hotel TV, the football was punctuated by Scottish Health Council ads in which young men and women are seen doing dorky things - including stubbing cigarettes out on their suits - under the influence and in public while the voiceover gently asks: 'Is your hair all you're letting down when you're out drinking?'
Hazel Blears, the newly promoted public health minister, tells me the idea of such ads is to make over-indulgence look uncool, since 94 per cent of the population drink and 82 per cent of that large number do so without causing themselves, or the nearest A&E department, any problem. Drink, like speeding on the motorway, is a harder social problem to tackle than drugs or tobacco, I suspect, precisely because it is a majority vice.
Among the problem drinkers, so the chief medical officer's recent report underlines, young people represent a growing proportion - young women in particular - as all of us can readily observe on Friday nights. Who would have expected (I am 56) teenage girls to behave as badly as boys when binge drinking?
MPs routinely agonise about this one. Some are dimly aware that politicians, doctors too, are notoriously high-risk groups and also that they sound like killjoys when discussing the Demon Drink. I hesitate to make the sweeping claim that nice but humourless MPs are drawn to the subject, but It is true.
But when recent attempts to decriminalise aspects of the drug culture get so much attention (positive and negative) and tobacco advertising never goes away as an issue, It is hardly surprising the anti-alcohol MPs feel their campaigns are an unloved low priority - despite the government's white paper and its promise of a comprehensive 10-department strategy by 2004.
Unless I have missed others, there have been two Commons debates on drink in just two months, plus Labour's Ross Cranston's backbench bill to strengthen the duty of primary care trusts to provide suitable treatment. Ms Blears was also harassed during Commons health questions last week, by Lib Dem Nick Harvey, Tory David Tredinnick (urging herbal remedies as usual) and Labour's Glenda Jackson, whose son was 'glassed' in the face by a pub drunk.
What strikes the observer is a certain wellmeant helplessness. Trade minister Kim Howells told one debate that the government has cracked down hard on the marketing of alcopops to children and is making it easier for licensees who sell to the under-18s to be traced and punished. There are 'no quick fixes', he concedes.
Ms Blears believes in education and gentle persuasion, along with the concept of the 'brief intervention', the moment when an ill or hung-over patient may listen to the advice of his/her GP or practice nurse. In the face of current trends and rising consumption, it does not yet sound like a strategy.
'The British drinker does not know how to drink sensibly, ' says Jim Sheridan, Labour MP for West Renfrewshire. Might that be something to do with, for instance, licensing laws which encourage binge drinking at closing time, a disaster for police and hospitals alike?
One of the cheerier bits of news this year was that 36 hours of unrestricted drinking - a Howells reform - produced one of the least violent new year's eves.And did you notice the World Cup (touch wood) went quietly, too?
Or that loyal Jubilee royalists outside Buck House did not riot, despite huge numbers?
Dudley's Ross Cranston told fellow MPs his local police have an alcohol abuse referral scheme for arrested drunks that seems to be going well, though other MPs claim a class bias where GPs attitudes towards patients' drinking is concerned.
Ms Blears is adamant the NHS's zero-tolerance towards violent patients has led to some prison sentences. That might help if we knew about it, as we did when a mother was jailed for letting her teenage daughters bunk off school. But I can't remember such a case.
Perhaps Ms Blears, a lawyer, could set the Milburn publicity juggernaut in motion.