POLITICS

Published: 15/01/2004, Volume II4, No. 5888 Page 21

Now that the festivities are over once again and the nation is soberly back at work, what are we going to do about the booze and its worsening impact upon all our lives, not to mention 150,000 annual hospital admissions? Ministers are pondering. Once again.

As I write, one of the anti-smoking campaigns is zealously threatening to help staff sue pubs and hotels which allow/force employees to be passive smokers. With the exception of breathalyser lobbyists, anti-drink campaigners rarely show such zeal. Nor do ministers whose instincts - as with cannabis - were to liberalise the law until they started monitoring the dire consequences. Judges remain lax about drunken drivers who kill.

Yet the stream of health and crime-related reports is overwhelming. My file contains a study published last winter which states that death due to excessive drinking has doubled in 20 years - with the death rate peaking in people's late 50s, instead of their early 70s just 10 years ago.

As with cancer and the weed, we all know this. Ditto rowdiness in town and country, domestic violence and crime. Over Christmas I read US crime writer Patricia Cornwell's fascinating real-life whodunnit about Jack the Ripper (the painter Walter Sickert dunnit) and was struck by how it was drink that drove those doomed women into prostitution. Nowadays it is more likely to be drugs, leaving drink to corrode the livers of affluent 'Bridget Jones' young women.

What will Labour do? At Westminster last week Ross Cranston, MP for Dudley North and briefly a Blairite law officer, raised the issue in debate, not for the first time. His target was alcohol marketing, where over£200m (£600m if you count all forms of promotion) is spent recruiting everyounger new drinkers, especially women, via what I - rough fellow - call pre-mixed girlie drinks and alcopops.

They are aided by 'one of the laxest regulatory regimes in the world' for TV advertisements.The British Medical Association wants them outlawed.Mr C wants 'irresponsible promotions' - ie 'three-for-two' - banned and drinks labelled for alco-content and risk, as Liverpool brewery Cains is poised to do. Even the Dublin government is moving this way.

Mr Cranston is one of those annoying MPs whom it is near-impossible to trace on a weekend phone. Ditto public health minister Melanie Johnson, who answered him. But I did trace Jim Cousins, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, where teenage girls roar around the trendy Big Market and the Quays on cold winters nights, half-naked.

Mr Cousins attended the Cranston debate because they have paired up on drink.Not to go clubbing on the Quays, but in Mr Cousins' case to take the petition signed by 600 liver specialists - including Newcastle consultant Dr Christopher Record - to Number 10 last summer. He was greatly encouraged by Ms Johnson's remarks.

'She came close to indicating that they may force the drinks industry to label alcohol. It was the strongest statement yet.'

If you say so, Jim. But ministers have dithered for years. The policy is now parked with the Home Office, to which Hazel Blears moved from health because the Department of Health 'didn't come up with an alcohol policy in four years', a senior minister reminds me.

As things stand, the Number 10 strategy unit will report in March on how to reduce binge drinking, and may seek to beef up the industry's self-regulation. But six ministries are involved. Tessa Jowell's culture, media and sports lobby, for instance, still seems to believe that the benign effect of drink on jobs, restaurants and city centre nightlife outweighs the puke and noise.

Home secretary David Blunkett is privately worried that liberalisation has made matters worse - certainly that is the evidence from 24/7 drinking in Scotland.Wary Jim Cousins agrees that ministers are backtracking fast from the discredited idea of liquor licensing in flexible 'zones'.

New laws, including the new anti-social behaviour act, will tighten things up. There is a balance to be found here. Too much zealotry will not work, as mayor of New York Mike Bloomberg is demonstrating.Mr Cousins fears the police power to shut rowdy teen bars is too draconian to work.

He also tells me that New World lagers and wines are now much stronger than the stuff we used to drink. A glass of Aussie Shiraz is really 1.5 units, says Jim. Damn. Bang goes this column's unit monitoring strategy.