Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - October 1996

* Behind Closed Doors *

Like most other big towns, Stockport has a problem with underage kids hanging around in parks and on street corners drinking alcohol and causing a nuisance. The council are now planning to combat this by introducing a blanket ban on the drinking of alcohol out of doors, something which seems to be gaining almost universal support.

But drinking outside isn't something confined to wayward teenagers - law-abiding adults have been known to do it as well. Drinkers spill out onto the pavement outside pubs on hot summer nights, families take a bottle of wine along for a picnic in the park, people watching a Sunday morning football match on a cold winter's day take a warming sip from a hip-flask. The supporters of a ban argue that there is no intention of cracking down on things like these, and the police will use their discretion.

But in that case, why outlaw them in the first place? A law which bans a whole range of activities, but depends on it not being applied in most cases, is likely to end up being held in complete disrepute. If it's left to the discretion of the police, can we trust them to apply it consistently and never to abuse that discretion? It also makes the very questionable assumption that drinking any alcohol at all is basically an undesirable activity best kept behind closed doors.

If stricter controls are necessary (which I'm less than wholly convinced about), then surely they need to be much more closely targeted at the real problem areas, and make a clear distinction between the use and abuse of alcohol.

* The Soft Option *

Strictly in the interests of research, I recently sampled one of those new alcoholic lemonades. It wasn't an unpleasant drink, but what really struck me was that you couldn't tell it contained alcohol without reading the label on the bottle, even though most of these things have a higher ABV than ordinary- strength beers. The potential dangers are obvious - unsuspecting drivers being plied with the stuff in unmarked glasses as someone's idea of a joke, to name but one.

When I was learning to drink as a teenager, all the alcoholic drinks available were, to a greater or lesser extent, an acquired taste. You had to put up with something initially unpalatable to experience the effects of alcohol. Once you had acquired the taste, though, it was something from which you gained a lasting, mature pleasure. With these alcoholic "soft" drinks, young drinkers can have the effect while still enjoying the sweet and sickly taste of pop, leading to a prolonged infantilisation of their taste buds. Like designer ciders, alcoholic soft drinks are a cynical marketing exercise directed at the young, and one likely to do serious long-term damage to the public standing of the drinks industry, for the sake of a quick buck.

By all means drink lemonade or Coke if your sole aim is to quench your thirst. But if you want to enjoy an alcoholic drink, get yourself something with a bit of heritage and quality about it, whether beer, wine or spirits. By making Hooper's Hooch, or whatever, your tipple of choice, you're declaring to the world not how cool you are, but how immature and gullible.

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