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Welcome to the New Sobriety (December 9, 2008)

Indulge me if I play canary in the coal mine here, but I have the whiff of a new Age of Temperance in my nostrils. In Britain politicians are scrambling to enact legislation that, they say, will curb binge drinking among the young. In England, according to the magazine off licence news, "The government is poised to bind the drinks industry in tough new legislation... Curbs on promotions, point of sale, in-store sampling and where alcohol is sited – along with how much is displayed – are among the draconian rules at the centre of a public consultation launched by the Department of Health."

In Scotland, the Scottish Executive is considering putting a minimum price of 35p per alcoholic unit on the price of drinks. They want to set such a minimum price to deter binge drinkers whose choice of alcohol is invariably the cheapest available.

Also under consideration is the banning of all promotions and promotional material related to beverage alcohol. These measures follow a study by Sheffield University that concluded that there is "strong and consistent evidence" that price increases and taxation can reduce consumption. (It took a study to determine that?)

Dr. Alasdair Young, a Scottish psychiatrist and an expert on alcohol addiction, has called for a revival of the temperance movement in Scotland. He takes his cue from the resurgence of the temperance movement in the United States and a growing mood "to reject alcohol" as part of family values mantra from our neighbour to the south.

In Australia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd took a step towards reviving the temperance movement in that sun-burnt country of heroic drinkers by a declaration that alcohol abuse is worrying his government. "I am concerned about what I describe as an epidemic of binge drinking across the country. I think it's not good," he is reported as saying. A bill entitled Alcohol Toll Reduction currently before Australia's senate will require health information labels to be placed on all alcohol products. The bill also includes the requirement that alcohol advertising to be approved by a government body and TV ads for alcohol to be scheduled only after 9 pm and before 5 am. Not that dramatic, but in a nation that has celebrated its capacity to imbibe large quantities of alcohol this is a cultural reversal of seismic proportions.

We hear the old saw that we as Canadians are drinking less but drinking better. Basically we are drinking less whether it be for heath and fitness reasons, due to drink-and-drive concerns, or from personal conviction and societal pressures. Throughout the Western world statistics show that beverage alcohol consumption is falling. (The only countries where alcohol consumption is rising are China and India, who have only lately discovered the joys of wine.) Governments are reacting specifically to binge drinking, mainly among young people, and demonizing alcohol for those who enjoy a drink in moderation. Our own is not immune. The monopoly system in Canada is the most hypocritical institution on this planet. On the one hand they produce lavish magazines and flashy brochures inveigling us to buy their highly taxed products, and on the other they preach moderation and personal responsibility. If they want to control consumption they should get out of the business of selling alcohol.

If you substitute the word "cigarette" for beverage alcohol in the above piece you can join me down the coal mine. The war on smoking has been all but won; the new target is beverage alcohol. The temperance lobby makes no distinction between wine drinkers who enjoy a glass or two with meals and those who do their social drinking in doorways out of brown paper decanters. Keep a weather eye cocked for the coming storm.




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