Let's plonk a higher price on cheap alcohol

19th November 2010 at 00:00

I have a friend whose life is blighted by alcohol. She has lost her driving licence, her job, her relationship. I feel a huge amount of sympathy for her. Occasionally, I try to stop drinking to save the calories as much as anything, and it is so hard.

Hard because it is a habit, and it tastes nice. Hard because it does relax you, and is an easy reward, especially come Friday night. But it is very, very hard because our society revolves around drinking. Alcohol has become a loss leader in the supermarket, with three quite pricey bottles of wine for a tenner.

Go to any event, and alcohol is involved. Drink is usually the blue touchpaper in gang fights, pub brawls and the aggression regularly witnessed in accident and emergency departments.

So recent reports of teenager alcohol abuse should come as no surprise. It costs the NHS about pound;19 million a year, and uses up precious hospital time and resources. Ambulances were called out more than 16,000 times last year to deal with drunk teenagers. Alcohol abuse will cause long-term health problems for these kids, and must impinge on their school work and academic achievement.

According to research I read, some 600,000 children aged between 11 and 17 drink at least twice a week. There seems to be no problem getting hold of alcohol - some shoplifted, some bought by helpful adults, some no doubt nicked from home. And maybe some is donated happily by grown-ups.

So where are the parents? I know that my boys drank when they were in fifth and sixth year, but I comforted myself that it was usually in my house, so I knew where they were and that, as far as I could make out, they were rarely drunk. I suppose I allowed it because I felt that they, and their mates, were safer inside than out. Yet I was aware that the girls drank lots of vodka and peach schnapps, although - amazingly - they seemed quite sober when they sang their way home.

What would I have done if they had been my daughters? Could I have stopped them? I hope their parents knew where they were and didn't hold me responsible for their drinking. I have to say, however, that they have all grown up to be pleasant, likeable young adults.

As I get older, maybe I don't get wiser, but I do get more concerned. We got up to all sorts of no good at that age, but rarely got taken home by the police or ended up in hospital. But is that because we drank less, or just because no one minded? My fears are that the behaviour of too many young people these days is now well out of parental control, and that this behaviour is now beginning in primary schools.

Underage drinking can wreck young lives, just as it can wreck adult lives. Yet drinking too much is perhaps part of growing up, and most youngsters will experiment. Most will come out the other end, relatively unscathed as we were. The only hope is that parents are held more accountable when their children are picked up by the police and begin to check exactly what their kids are up to.

And maybe we could do our middle-aged selves a wee favour and cut down too.

Penny Ward is a secondary teacher.

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