Alcohol is the new tobacco

The fight against alcohol has begun. But the health lobby forgets that risk and harm are necessary parts of a worthwhile life.

By Ian Dunt

And so it begins. The British Medical Association (BMA) is calling for Britain to become the first country to ban alcohol advertising, sponsorship and promotions. We know it won’t end there. This line of attack was the first front in the war against smoking, and it appears alcohol is now in the health lobby’s sights.

As an organisation, the BMA only comprehends the world through the prism of physical harm. Harm is bad. Non-harm is good. Nothing else fits in the equation. Unfortunately for them - but fortunately for us - there’s so much more to life than that.

Many things which cause harm are a fundamental part of a life worth living. Sex, for a start, has killed more humans throughout history than we could count, through sexually transmitted diseases, the act of giving birth and jealous husbands, to name but three. Cigarettes are the same. They kill millions. But there is a certain beauty to the sensual, subtle – almost mystical – nature of smoking which isn’t negated just because it is dangerous or addictive. Any rigorous exercise or extreme sport has killed humans in their thousands. On the other end of the scale, bacon butties - possibly the greatest invention in the history of man - will invariably end you if you enjoy them too often

Sometimes it’s worth giving up some safety for a little pleasure. It is risk and excitement and uncertainty that make life worth living.

The members of the BMA presumably lead satisfying, enjoyable lives. But as an organisation it now appears dedicated to firing off some of the most excruciating, deadening proposals in British society. Why? Because all of its calculations derive from the ideal of minimising physical harm. That is now all it cares about as an organisation. Quality of life, and the strange ethereal pleasures that are part of life’s rough-and-tumble, are kept off the books.

On a generous assessment, you could say that this message constitutes its operational role. It warns us of harm, and society debates the balance we wish to strike between safety and pleasure. But the BMA has gone well beyond advising. Its proposals are invariably paternalistic and authoritarian. They are about banning, and scrapping, and outlawing. They are not about advising autonomous individuals about the choices available to them. It has established an impressive level of influence in government, as evidenced by the smoking ban – one of the only political issues Tony Blair ever backed down on. There’s nothing surprising about this. A government as authoritarian as this one laps up the control-obsessed plans emanating from organisations like the BMA.

Now it’s going for alcohol. And yet alcohol is qualitatively different to tobacco. Firstly, it is not innately harmful. Secondly, it has positive and negative social and psychological consequences which cigarettes do not have (ie drunkenness). Thirdly, the argument that it affects the freedom of those not partaking in the drug is harder to make.

Everyone, deep down, understands John Stuart Mill’s central tenet of On Liberty; that we cannot take away someone’s freedom unless they are oppressing the freedom of someone else. That’s why the smoking debate so quickly rested on second hand ‘passive smoking’, the science of which, by the way, is deeply suspect when you analyse public spaces. With alcohol, the only defence available to health groups will be its societal effects, such as family breakdown and crime.

This is a problematic argument to adopt. Everything has a causal effect. The fact something has a ramification does not entitle you to define it as freedom-removing. Someone who really loves reading, for instance, might ignore his children for it. No legal ramifications follow from this.

Alcohol must be left alone. Not just because I enjoy drinking, although I do very much. Not just because it forms a vital part of Britain’s pub culture, which is not just about drunken fights in the street, but also about providing a vital social link, a basis for community, in Great Britain. And not just because alcohol’s negative effects on society are a product, not a cause, of other problems we have.

It must be saved because we need to tackle these arguments against harm at the root, on a philosophical level, and accept that there’s more to life than living for a long time. We also need to live well. Doctors must not become policy makers - any more than the drinks lobby should.


© Copyright: 10, Sep 2009 Politics

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