Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - January 2004

* The Mask Slips *

The reasonable face of health campaigns hides a hardline desire for draconian bans

ADVOCATES of a ban on smoking in public places such as pubs have always claimed that their prime concern was to protect people from second-hand smoke. But the truth behind these assurances was laid bare when an editorial appeared recently in the respected medical journal “The Lancet” proposing the complete prohibition of smoking.

In practice, such a policy is never going to be workable, as the experience of alcohol prohibition in the USA demonstrates, and the authors of the piece no doubt realise that. But it is a clear indication of what, at heart, they really wish for. It is a recognised tactic amongst pressure groups of all kinds to campaign for something that falls well short of their ultimate goal, but is likely to gain much wider moderate support.

The phrase “Health Fascism” is often used in a throwaway sense, but it aptly describes this particular mindset, that adults cannot be trusted to take responsibility for their own wellbeing and so the State has to compel them. And nobody should delude themselves that alcohol is immune from the same tendency.

Behind such apparently reasonable groups such as Alcohol Concern and the Institute of Alcohol Studies lie hardline prohibitionists, who miss no opportunity to portray pubs and alcohol in a negative light. They will be carefully studying the progress of the anti-smoking campaign for ideas on how best to further their own cause. How long will it be, I wonder, before we see an editorial in “The Lancet” making the case for the complete banning of alcoholic drinks?

* Law-Abiding Rife *

Shock headlines on drink-driving distort the truth

BEFORE CHRISTMAS, in a survey published by the road safety pressure group BRAKE, half of Britain's motorists admitted to drinking before driving, with one in three saying they had driven after drinking two units of alcohol, and 10% having driven after drinking three. This was presented in shock terms claiming that drink-driving was “rife”.

But hang on a minute. The quantities referred to would be highly unlikely to put someone anywhere near the UK drink-drive limit, and in most cases would not even take them above the somewhat lower limit applying in many Continental countries. The spin put on this particular survey could be seen as downright mischievous by implying that lawbreaking was commonplace, when the detail actually showed precisely the opposite. Rather than condemnation, it might be more appropriate to praise the respondents for their moderation and responsibility.

Of course it cannot be said with absolute certainty that any quantity of alcohol is safe, just as driving within the speed limit is not a guarantee of safety. But surely anyone with a genuine interest in road safety should be giving priority to deterring and detecting those who really do endanger others by driving well over the current limit, rather than making responsible people feel guilty about consuming small amounts of alcohol that are irrelevant to accident risk.

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