It took me some consideration to decide to talk about this, partly because it’s the first day of a new work week and I don’t want to be a downer, and partly because it’s a touchy issue that offends some people.
I came across an article on Digg this morning from Sky News in Britain, discussing the “alcohol problem” in Scotland. My interest was piqued because the title of the article stated that Scots are drinking more vodka than anything else, which kind of surprised me. The home of Scotch whiskey and they’re drinking potato juice? Seems odd. So I looked into it.
Apparently the Scots bought 50.5 million liters of pure alcohol last year, which amounts to 12.2 liters per person over the age of eighteen. For those of you not versed in booze, that is a hell of a lot of liquor: the stat works out to 46 bottles of the aforementioned vodka, 537 pints of beer or 130 bottles of wine. Per person. When you consider that’s an average figure (which assumes every single Scottish person over eighteen drinks exactly the same amount) it becomes even more staggering, because clearly not everybody drinks the same amount, if at all. That means there are a considerable number of Scottish citizens who drink even more than the estimate suggests. In order to drink the amount suggested by this estimate, you or I would have to consume one and a half pints of beer, or a third of a bottle of wine, or two vodka drinks, every single day for the entire year. Think about that for a minute. You would have to drink that much without missing even once in order to meet the average consumption rate.
Clearly, the Scots don’t fool around.
According to Scotland’s Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon, these polls signify a serious problem, and to be honest I’m inclined to agree. I enjoy alcohol as much as the next guy, maybe more than the average, but I don’t think even I could do that much, that often. I’m reasonably sure my liver would hand in its resignation if I even considered it. Clearly that much boozing can’t be good for you; that an entire nation is spending that much time in its cups is a pretty bad sign.
But here’s the problem.
I’ll be the last person to stand up and say alcoholism isn’t an issue – it is. I’ve seen its effects on family and friends throughout my life; addiction of any stripe is destructive to the victim and to everyone around him or her. I’m not disputing that. However, the way it’s dealt with in our culture – a culture that’s embraced alcohol for thousands of years – is where I start to have problems.
Take Scotland for example. You’ve got an entire nation beset by what can realistically be classified as large-scale alcoholism, and the best solution the state can come up with to remedy the problem is to instate a minimum price on the sale of alcoholic drinks. Basically this equates to an additional tax, and to be honest I see that as a band-aid solution that addresses the symptoms and not the illness.
I think it’s fair to say that people who are addicted to a substance aren’t much waylaid by price. Look at the smoking issue in Canada: cigarette prices have gone consistently up over the last ten years, and yet people I know who smoke don’t seem to be any more inclined to quit despite their habit now costing twice what it used to. It’s the same thing with booze. If you raise the prices on liquor you’re not stopping anybody from buying it – it’s just costing them more money to support the habit. All this accomplishes is cutting down on the consumption represented by the casual drinking community who drink because they want to, not because they have to. Casual drinkers aren’t the problem, so the tax basically winds up punishing people who drink alcohol responsibly. True alcoholics won’t stop drinking just because you raise the price – they will justify their increased expenditures any way they have to, even if it means less money for their basic life necessities (bear in mind this can very easily translate into less food for their kids, missed rent or car payments, and so on). That’s the basis of alcoholism as a disease: alcoholics have to drink, and unless they’re put into some kind of rehabilitation program that doesn’t allow them any access to booze, they genuinely can’t help themselves.
This isn’t just a Scottish issue, either: according to a recent poll here in Canada, alcohol consumption has been on the rise since 1997. Apparently 73 percent of drinking going on in this country is “in excess of Canadian low-risk drinking guidelines”. For the record, those guidelines suggest the average Canadian male should have no more than two drinks a day, and for women only one-half drink per day (“drink” in this context refers to a bottle of beer or a medium glass of wine – hard liquor wasn’t figured in). The response from Tim Stockwell, who was a key researcher and writer on the paper Patterns of Risky Alcohol Use in B.C. and Canada, closely mirrored the Scottish response. Stockwell called alcohol “our favourite drug we take for granted…[the way it is used] in general is mostly putting people’s health and safety at some degree of risk.” He suggested that alcohol should be taxed according to its potency: a more stringent tax on spirits, for example, which are regulated to 40% across the board in Canada.
The same problem exists here as in Scotland – and taxes aren’t the answer.
I think it’s a question of culture. I mentioned before that alcohol has always been a fundamental part of our society, and this is particularly true when you consider the question of national identity. As the home of scotch whiskey, Scotland is widely-accepted as a hard-drinking community – think about all the stereotypes you’ve ever heard about Scottish people and you’ll start to see what I mean. Alcohol is a very deeply ingrained part of how the rest of the world views Scotland, and from the Scots I know, I can tell you it’s something they consider something of a badge of honour.
It’s very much the same thing in Canada, at least from my perspective. Canada is unique in the international community in that we don’t really have the same kind of clear-cut national identity that you might imagine from a country like England or the United States. I hate to return to the idea of stereotypes, because obviously they’re not the most reliable source of information about a people, but consider the stereotypes you know about Canadians: politeness and a love of hockey and beer immediately come to mind. While you might not think that beer plays an important role in those stereotypes, think again. Remember back a few years when Molson launched that brilliant advertising campaign featuring everyman Joe who was held up as the epitome of all things Canadian? In case you’ve forgotten, here’s the video.
Wow. Okay, I said it was brilliant and I guess it is, but I should also mention that it’s really, really embarrassing.
My point is this: for better or worse, we’ve made sure that beer is part of our national identity. Retrospectively, naming a major brewery’s biggest-selling beer after ourselves might have something to do with that, but regardless, it’s there. A lot of it has to do with Canada’s little-brother syndrome when it comes to the ‘States – one of the major complaints you’ll hear Canadians voicing about America is that their beer is “weak” compared to ours (that is to say, has less flavour and more importantly a lower percentage of alcohol). There’s a subliminal suggestion that because our domestic beer is “stronger” it’s perceived as “better” than its American counterpart. And therein lies the most insidious part about how we deal with booze.
A great deal is made in this culture of alcohol as it relates to masculinity. You can wax philosophic all day long about how alcohol is marketed to make parties look more fun, women more attractive, et cetera, but at the end of the day the biggest lie perpetrated about alcohol is that an ability to consume vast amounts of it makes you more of a man. In fact, a direct line is drawn between your ability to hammer back shot after shot and – let’s face it – the size of your member. Forget the biology involved in alcohol tolerance over which you have almost no control; forget that at the end of the day it’s tolerance to poison – nope, if you can’t have more than two drinks without getting tipsy you’re a “lightweight” (for reference this is a Bad Thing), and while few people castigate women for a low tolerance (in fact it’s expected), for men it’s damn near a rite of passage to drink yourself into a coma.
Where does this message come from? I don’t know if I’m qualified to say, entirely; it comes from a lot of places. Some of it, I’m sure, is just part of the deeply-rooted insecure alpha male mentality you find in sports and in certain lines of work (think hard-labour jobs or, ironically, advertising), but it’s common enough in its own marketing scheme – sorry, but the whole “please drink responsibly” message at the end of a beer commercial is kind of at odds with the “look how great this beer made our party – pay particular attention to the scads of hot chicks that showed up to partake” imagery the rest of the commercial pushes. Celebrities who get drunk and act out might be castigated, but the sheer amount of attention they get glorifies them by painting them as bad asses and rebels. If you stop and look around, it’s everywhere – not nearly as overt as it was in years past, but it’s there nonetheless.
So how, in good conscience, can a government put on their concerned face and start shaking their finger, calling everybody who drinks more than once a week a “problem drinker” and revoking people’s licenses for having one beer six hours before they drive anywhere, when they’re the ones providing the substance and allowing the marketing to sell it? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condoning drunk driving or binge drinking here. Anybody caught intoxicated behind the wheel of a car should be taken out back and beaten with a stick before having their license revoked forever, and I have nothing but sympathy for people with a genuine illness like alcoholism (I also have no sympathy for people who over-drink and then complain about hangovers, but that’s for another article). But let’s face it – the government is feeding people two opposing messages when it comes to alcohol consumption.
The debate rages: alcohol intake can reduce the risk of heart disease / alcohol intake gives you cirrhosis. Don’t market booze to kids / market booze to college students who might as well be kids. Card everybody who goes to a bar / drop the legal drinking age from 21 to 19. You see what I mean?
And then they turn around, like they’re doing in Scotland, and saying “I know how to fix this: charge more money for the dangerous, health-threatening product! That way people who drink responsibly will have to pay more for a luxury they can already scarce afford, and people who abuse it will sink further into a desperate situation because they’ll have less money!” Like I said before, that is not a solution – that is a money grab.
So now you’re asking “all right smart guy, what’s your solution?” Well, I’ll tell you. The secret, as with most things, lie with education. You don’t find a lot of people who, after years of not drinking, suddenly decide to take up liquor consumption as their favourite pastime – the majority of the alcoholics I’ve known have said they got their start when they were young people, usually early teenagers. One fellow in particular mentioned that it was the mystique and romanticism of boozing that drew him to the bottle originally. Now, I’m not suggesting anything so rash as banning drinking in movies, like those crazy kids wanted to do with smoking, nor am I suggesting that everyone who drinks on television should be portrayed as hopeless drunks. But in many continental European countries where drinking is as much a part of the culture as it is here if not more so, children are introduced to the ins and outs of alcohol at an early age, as opposed to the hypocritical “do as I say, not as I do” mentality we take with our children. If you hold booze up as being some kind of magical rite of passage, you entice kids and especially teenagers who equate drinking with rebellion. I say kids should be educated on the good and bad about alcohol from the get-go: the enjoyment you can garner from a good glass of wine to compliment a meal for example, the negative effects you get if you have too much, and the dangers involved with drinking to excess and losing your judgement. The key is balance. Talk to your kids – share information and experiences with them. Don’t let them get suckered in by marketing or media. Don’t let them grow up thinking that the ability to shotgun a bottle of whiskey is some kind of badge of honour or any kind of positive commentary on their ability to be an adult. You know, treat them like thinking human beings instead of either fetish objects to be defended through promotion of a culture of ignorance, or else mindless consumers who will buy into everything you sell.
I mean, I suppose you could just ban the stuff outright, but I’d find it very difficult to get behind that. Alcohol isn’t like cigarettes – in measured doses it can be part of a healthy lifestyle and an enjoyable addition to your life. You just have to be responsible, and that responsibility starts at home and in your community.
I think I speak for responsible drinkers in Scotland, in Canada, and the world over. We get taxed enough. Don’t give us another reason to drink away our troubles by taxing us further.
Just kidding. Sort of.