Last Friday, when Mr Bolton gave a wonderful talk in Chapel on American gun laws, there was a curious equivalent on the front page of our own papers. The Government’s Chief Medical Officer had just issued advice that, surprise of all surprises, drinking alcohol was not good for your health. If you must drink, his report advises that the weekly alcohol limit for men should be reduced from 21 units to 14 units, which represents roughly a glass of wine or a pint of beer per day. It was advice which seemed to me perfectly reasonable; people still have the freedom to do what they like, but they are given some more information on what the consequences might be. Despite its stature as advice and no more than that, it met, predictably, with outraged headlines, even in the so-called quality press:
“Health chiefs attacked over “nanny state” alcohol guide” was the headline on the front page of the Telegraph and inside that same paper “You wear your halo; I will buff my glass and pour another drink”.
There was little notice paid to the fact that many people find it extremely hard to stick to one glass; nor that alcohol, over time, can become addictive; nor that this country has a significant problem with alcohol which the Government, really only in relatively recent years, is finally trying to do something about. There are many very obvious differences between the firearm situation in America and our own alcohol problems, but the emotional reaction of the public to what they see as curbing of their basic citizen rights is remarkably similar; so too, amazingly, are the statistics. The FBI official figures for 2012 state that there were 8,855 deaths from firearm related homicides in the US; the office for national statistics in the UK stated that there were 8,416 alcohol related deaths in the UK the year afterwards. Even if you look at more sensational sources, they are remarkably similar. The
American website “Heeding God’s call” stated that there were over 30,000 gun related deaths in the US last year; the UK’s most read newspaper (embarrassingly enough) the mail online last week claimed that there were 33,000 alcohol related deaths in the UK. So one can surmise with some degree of accuracy that there are somewhere between 8,000 and 30,000 deaths in each country by each cause. And yet, America has a population of 320 million against the UK’s population of 64 million, meaning that you are five times as likely to die an alcohol related death in the UK than you are a gun related death in the US.
It is a moot point which is the better way to die; at least with alcohol one could claim that often it is self-inflicted. But explain that to the family whose child has been killed by a drink driver, or by a drunken stabbing or fight in the street after the pubs and clubs have closed, accidental or not. One statistic which keeps coming back to me is that one in six cases of people attending Accident and Emergency wards at Hospital are alcohol related; and one in six cases of acute male admissions to hospital are also alcohol related. Not only is this a complete waste of everyone’s time and money, and valuable medical time at that (£3 billion, to be precise), which could be used in better ways, but it is also an unnecessary human tragedy.
When I was at school, the big Government push was against cigarettes. I attended a lecture which I will never forget, where the lungs of two dead men were shown on a screen, one a 20 year old non-smoker who had died in a car crash and the other a 60 year old smoker. The second picture was one of the most gruesome pictures I have ever seen. At the time I remember, perhaps less usually, loving the smell of cigarette smoke – and in fact, oddly, I still do. But I have never once taken a puff of a cigarette. I don’t say that to be holier than thou, nor indeed to wear a halo; merely to point out that there is a choice. The reason I did not do it was because I did not want to become dependent, to spend considerable money (which I did not really have) on something I knew was bad for me and which I knew I loved the smell of – addiction would have been too easy.
The Government took 20 years, and increasingly draconian measures, to change the public perception of smoking. It has, I think, achieved that laudable goal – and saved many lives in the meantime. But it is now the turn of alcohol and I think that this will be a theme in your lives. Unfortunately, and I include myself in this, it is probably our generation more than most that has done much to glorify drinking, something which arguably one can see from the reactions of the papers to the most recent Government advice. I urge you to consider that you have a choice in this. You do not need to drink; it is a choice. Those who dismiss the recent Government advice on the grounds that low levels of consumption are not where the Chief Medical Office should be spending his time miss the point entirely; it is all part of a much broader consideration, and one in which you in this Hall can, and should, have a say.