Liam Donaldson – the UK’s Chief Medical Officer for the past decade – is something the crusader. The smoking ban , which he describes as his ‘greatest achievement’, does not appear to have satiated his appetite for reshaping our lifestyles. Thus he is unveiling plans to set a minimum price for alcohol of 50 pence per unit.
To my shock, the Labour government – which up until now has pursued an obsessively paternalistic agenda – has taken the right approach to these ridiculous proposals. Gordon brown has come out and said that he is unwilling to punish the vast majority of responsible drinkers, not least during a recession. Indeed it is well known that the booze tax like the tobacco tax hits the poor hardest. Meanwhile the Lib Dems, to their discredit, have said that they support an end to ‘pocket-money priced’ alcohol. I am imagining that the likes of Clegg and Huhne might have a different conception of ‘pocket-money prices’ from the great mass of society.
Aware that boozing is, in most circumstances, considered a personal choice, Liam Donaldson has defended his proposals by pushing the concept of ‘passive drinking’. ‘England’, he says, ‘has a drink problem and the whole of society bears the burden. The quality of life of families and in cities and towns up and down the country is being eroded by the effects of excessive drinking.’ There is so much one can say here. Does he imagine that the quality of life enjoyed by families will be improved by eroding their real incomes through higher alcohol prices? Meanwhile, I simply don’t believe that alcohol causes anti-social behaviour in the way many people reckon it does. Yes the two often go together on a Saturday night in Swindon, but, as anyone with a background in social sciences understand, Correlation is by no means necessarily indicative of causation. I am sure my fellow Third Estaters will back me up when I say that the student culture at Cambridge is characterised by massive amounts of boozing, but that violence and the threat of violence is absent like it is nowhere else.
More generally the notion of ‘passive drinking’, as something comparable to passive smoking, is simply ridiculous. Smoking – as a chemical process, in and of itself – has the capacity to physically harm those other than the smoker. Drinking on the hand does not. Unlike tobacco, when I drink alcohol, it does not seem into the bodies of those around me. Rather it is generally thought to be associated with certain kinds of behaviour which may harm others. Needless to say, if you start punishing activities because they might be associated with other activities, you effectively have a mandate to police every individual choice or decision no matter how personal.
Sometimes the way in which a person constructs a sentence can offer a real insight into they think. Consider the following comment that Liam Donaldson made to the times a couple of years back:
“The first thing you see when you walk into a supermarket is a wall of cigarette packets, we need to do something about that, and let’s get the cigarette out of Kate Moss’s mouth.”
“Let us (presumably society) get that cigarette of Kate Mosses mouth”!!! While I object to the idiotic expectation that celebrities should be role models, it is not so much the sentiment that I mind here. Rather it is the way in which it is expressed which fills me with discomfort. Liam Donaldson could, of course, have said ‘let’s get Kate Moss to stop smoking. But instead, Kate’s body is presented as a passive object, with which society should interfere. In fact Kate – in her entirety – doesn’t even get a mention. It is sufficient to simply state what we – society – need to do to her mouth. We are, then, dealing with a man who very way of thinking runs counter to any notion of autonomy over one’s own body.