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In the drink

Paul Vallely

When I was in Ireland recently the news was dominated by a story about two teenagers who had died after taking part in 'NekNominate' drinking challenges on a popular social media website. One had simply ingested a greater volume of alcohol than his system could handle. The other had, as part of the challenge, necked the vast quantity of booze he had been dared to consume and then fallen in a river while performing a stunt which was part of the challenge.

The idea that people will drink whatever they are challenged to drink comes from more than the kind of peer pressure which my long-departed grandmother was wont to challenge by saying: 'and if your friend told you to put you hand in the fire would you do that too?' It is bound up with our national attitudes to alcohol. Admittedly British drinking culture is not as bad as that of Russia where a study, the largest of its kind ever conducted there, found that a quarter of Russian men die before they are 55, and most of the deaths are down to alcohol. The comparable figure in the UK, according to The Lancet, is seven per cent.

Still seven per cent is fairly frightening. So on the face of it the plan by the Government to introduce minimum pricing for cheap alcohol seems sensible enough. It outrages our sense of proportion that lager in supermarkets is cheaper than water, though we should remember that part of the problem is loss-leader competitive pricing by supermarkets (and balancing mark-ups on other products) which are slowly destroying the nation's sense of what food is really worth. It's also to do with preposterous business of buying bottled water in the first place when what comes out of our taps - and can be passed through a filter by the fastidious - is of a quality which most of the world would die for, or is dying for lack of.

But we should be wary of moral panic here. The ruling classes in Britain have long indulged in bouts of righteous indignation over the drinking habits of the working class. It was the Tudors who first made drunkenness a crime, and the nation's elite has never resiled from the stance. In 1606 Parliament passed 'The Act to Repress the Odious and Loathsome Sin of Drunkenness'. In the 18th century came the panic over the Gin Epidemic. A century after that mill owners in industrial Britain were lamenting that drunkenness cut productivity and hampered economic growth. Victorian temperance was the response.

Then during the First World War Lloyd George introduced pub licensing hours. He also banned thebuying of drinks in rounds for fear it was causing hangovers that reduced output in munitions factories.

But it is always the drinks of the working man which are hit hardest. Minimum alcohol pricing won't much affect the cost of a bottle of Chateau Lafite for the Old Etonians in the Cabinet or reduce the intake of Bollinger by the Bullingdon boys. This is aimed at the chavs rather than the chav-nots.

Yobs in the street may binge drink but health campaigners will tell you that the real problems with alcohol are being stored up by the middle classes who are drinking at dangerous levels on a daily basis. Almost half of middle class men now exceed the daily recommended limit. Wine consumption has increased fivefold since 1970. And the fastest growth in consumption is among middle class women. Minimum pricing won't do much for that.

Once there were two drinking cultures. In the Mediterranean, with its reliable climate and plentiful supply of wine, the locals drank steadily and frugally. In Northern Europe, where harvests were more unpredictable and heavily seasonal, a pattern of feast or famine was more common. Drinking was done in binges with long periods of abstinence in between. What has happened in Britain in more recent times is that people are drinking at Northern levels but with Mediterranean consistency. That's a different problem altogether.

Minimum pricing will hit the cheap lager of the poor. But it will affect only 1.3 per cent of alcohol sales. It will not touch the sales of wines which are building long term damage to the hearts and livers of the middle class. Nor will it touch the sweet alcopop products which are so blatantly targeted at the tastes of young people. We are becoming a nation of problem drinkers but the answer is not dearer lager in supermarkets; it is public health awareness, education in schools, tightening licensing hours, changing brewing practice and reducing booze ads aimed at young people and products designed to trade on the sweet palettes of the young.

Of course NekNomination is to be discouraged. But the challenge there is less the alcohol than addressing the issue of teenage braggadocio. NekNominations - in which part of the protocol is to challenge a friend to do something similar after you have met your dare - have involved not just drinking sambucca or vodka by the pint but mixing alcohol with bleach, urine, nail varnish remover, Fairy Liquid, brown sauce, dogfood, chilli powder, de-icer, Mr Muscle, motor-oil and even live goldfish. It's all on YouTube. One video shows a bare-chested man emptying a bottle of beer down the toilet before two friends lower him headfirst into the porcelain bowl to lap it up.

There's more going on there than the consumption of alcohol. Just as there was with the poor lad in Carlow who fell into the river while performing his nominated stunt and died. We certainly need a rethink on drink. But minimum pricing will not bring the answer.