The Devil’s Brew by Angela Caldin

It is with trepidation that I start to write about alcohol and its effects on us and our society, because I am more than well aware that my two fellow bloggers like a drink or twelve and that one of them at least has certainly suffered from some almighty hangovers in her time. But I am troubled by the hold that alcohol seems to have on our society at all levels, most dramatically among the young. Its effects are all too apparent in our town centres every weekend, when getting ‘bladdered’ seems to be a badge of honour in spite of loss of control, lapses of memory and the need to lie down clutching one’s head for the whole of the next day. Len Brown, Mayor of Auckland, has spent time with the police looking at alcohol-related issues in the central city. He found that pre-loading and bottle stores selling single serve liquor, contributed to high levels of drinking. He wants to outlaw anti-social drunkenness and keep the city fun, exciting and safe. How he can achieve this remains to be seen.

The word alcohol comes from the Arabic al-kuhl, which originally meant a very fine powder of antimony used as eye makeup. It conveyed the idea of something very fine and subtle, and the Arab alchemists therefore gave the name of al-kuhl to any impalpable powder obtained by sublimation, and later to all compounds obtained through the distillation process. Alcohol of some sort has played a part in most civilisations and their rituals. It heightens enjoyment through loosening inhibitions, makes people more garrulous and often tightens the bonds of friendship and community. But at the same time, alcohol can wield almost satanic power: it can ruin lives, destroy families and kill thousands on the roads.

The British government has made the following estimates of alcohol related harm:

In a community of 100,000 people each year:

  • Over 21,500 people will be regularly drinking above the lower-risk levels
  • Over 13,000 people will binge drink
  • Over 3,000 will be showing signs of alcohol dependence
  • 2,000 people will be admitted to hospital with an alcohol-related condition
  • 1,000 people will be victims of alcohol-related violent crime
  • Over 500 will be moderately or severely dependent on alcohol
  • Over 400 11-15 year olds will be drinking weekly

Alcohol is a legal drug which is a central nervous system depressant. Drinking alcohol involves risks, and the risks are higher if we drink excessively on a single occasion or drink higher amounts regularly over time.  One drink too many can leave us feeling out of control, slurring our words, losing our balance and vomiting. It can make us mouthy, argumentative and aggressive; it can also make us take risks that we normally wouldn’t take. Drinking above the lower-risk guidelines persistently over time, causes illnesses such as high blood pressure, liver damage, stomach cancer, breast cancer and heart disease.  Alcohol contributes to all kinds of problems, from violent crime to domestic violence to car-related deaths to missing work and unemployment. You’ve only to visit a magistrates’ court on any day of the week to see how many crimes are rooted in alcohol.

Why is this addictive substance legal if it causes so much damage? The main answer must be that, as for cigarettes, the tax revenue for the government from the massive drinks industry is huge and losing it would leave an enormous hole in their income. In America, they tried prohibition and it made the problem worse; forcing it underground simply gave criminals a source of profit, and removed any regulatory controls at all so that people became ill from badly distilled alcohol. The Muslim religion forbids the consumption of alcohol, though certainly in this country, many Muslims drink. Various Muslim countries have banned alcohol such as Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and Pakistan. Other non-Muslim countries have banned alcohol in the past such as the Faroe Islands 1907-1992, Iceland 1915-1989, Norway 1916-1927, and Finland 1919-1932. All these countries have clearly struggled to find a solution to the problems that alcohol brings with it.

The truth is that the consumption of alcohol is embedded in our culture and has been since time immemorial. Used in moderation, it can make a party go with a swing, relieve stress after a hard day’s work or even bestow some health benefits. But used to excess it can ruin health, destroy relationships and inflict serious harm and injury. The government can only issue guidelines about safe amounts, it cannot police our consumption in our own homes or favourite drinking haunts. It is up to us to do that for ourselves. I solved the question by becoming a teetotaller and giving up alcohol altogether about fifteen years ago. I always say to people who ask that it was one of the best things I ever did. It is so good to be liberated from an addictive drug and to be free to enjoy life without that insidious and lethal crutch.

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