Britain will never have a Mediterranean drinking culture

Britain will never have a Mediterranean drinking culture

One of the many things I prefer about being in France to England, along with the superior food, beautiful architecture and even more beautiful language, is their civilised attitude to alcohol – cheap, freely available and not used by the authorities as an excuse to constantly tell the population how horrible and rubbish they are.

So on one level the letter by medical experts urging the Government to take “bold action” by bringing in minimum prices for drinks should leave us cold. After all, as Christopher Snowdon points out (after reading his blog about the lies, mania and all around irrationality of the taxpayer-funded health campaigning industry, the term “health fascist” starts to look like an insult to Mussolini), Britain has the third-highest alcohol taxes in Europe.

Yet even though all our political instincts tell us otherwise, and much as I’m personally wary of doctors playing politicians – the fiasco about banning smoking in cars being a recent example – we should not immediately dismiss them.

Alcohol is most certainly a major social problem, and unlike, for example, obesity or smoking, it is a social problem which invariably affects non-participants (by all means suggest otherwise – let’s have that debate in any town centre at 11.30pm).

Alcohol is also, historically speaking, cheap: at least compared to most of the 20th century, although as anti-prohibitionists say, not compared to the 19th (although which would you rather live in, the 1950s or the incredibly violent and poverty-ridden 1850s?).

But the major problem with the libertarian argument is that it tries to compare Britain with other countries, and therefore tends to mix up cause and effect. France has a relaxed attitude to drink because it doesn’t have Britain’s alcohol-related social problems (cirrhosis of the liver, yes, but that is less the concern of policymakers than street violence and wife-beating) – it’s not the other way around.

Slashing taxes on wine and beer would not make people in Glasgow and Belfast drink like Italians or Greeks. So far attempts to create a more mature drinking culture through relaxing closing-time laws (a maddening and infantilising restriction) have failed to do so.

Of course there are nudges that might encourage sensible drinking, such as incentivising people to eat with their alcohol, or to drink in inter-generational groups – although how the state can do this is another matter, beyond more blindingly obvious and patronising advertising campaigns – but it’s unlikely that this would make serious inroads into “booze Britain”.

It’s a cultural thing. Or perhaps not, for alcoholism is thought to have a strong genetic component, and the affliction often runs through families. Furthermore rates of alcoholism are known to differ between population groups – no one would suggest that cafés on Native American reservations start serving wine to create a “continental drinking culture” there. Likewise many east Asians are genetically incapable of drinking alcohol without feeling sick. Yet policymakers routinely ignore the likelihood that there is a genetic component to the northern European weakness for alcohol.

As the Wall Street Journal reported:

Like the Asian flush, some alcohol-related genes are particularly prevalent in certain ethnic or geographic groups. A recent study in Nature found that a rare variation in the HTR2b gene, linked to severe impulsiveness, is found almost exclusively in Finnish people. “Almost all these severely impulsive individuals are also alcoholic, and their worse impulsive problems occurred while they were drunk,” says Dr. Goldman, the study’s senior investigator.

The Finns are famously reckless and uncontrollable drinkers, and Finland has even higher alcohol taxes than Britain, but attempts by the government there to lower them have coincided with increases in violence (a few years back a Viz wall poster of Europe illustrated Finland with a man surrounded by vodka bottles, which is not entirely unfair). Top of the Euro alcohol tax table is Ireland, a country with high levels of alcoholism and also a very strong prohibitionist tradition, in which, in living memory, up to a fifth of the population were teetotal.

In The 10,000 Year Explosion Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending of Utah University even suggest that the early use of wine in Mediterranean cultures helps explain the low levels of alcoholism among people of Greek and Italian extraction, compared to northern Europeans, who have not had time to build up as much immunity. I’ve not read this elsewhere, but it’s certainly possible.

Of course culture plays a part. Americans of British and Irish ancestry tend to drink less than the British and Irish, because drunkenness is more frowned upon in the US, but that is not entirely “cultural” either; America has always had pretty strict alcohol laws, from its minimum age of 21 to compulsory ID, restrictions on public drinking and numerous dry counties (and even after the repeal of prohibition, many states in the South remained dry, Mississippi being the last in 1966).

But at no point in history have northern Europeans, and the British in particular, been known to drink sensibly – as far back as the early medieval period, continental observers spoke with horror about the Anglo-Saxons and their hopeless drunkenness (indeed many English soldiers got drunk on the eve of the Battle of Hastings; I can’t imagine the sight of 9,000 heavily armed Normans would play well with a hangover). Further back, ancient Greek writers were shocked that the Scythians, the ancestors of today’s Ukrainians, drank their wine neat rather than mixed with water, as moderate Hellenes did.

So as much as we might loathe the idea of more state interference, we should be realistic about alcohol and stop making comparisons with other countries – the British are never going to have a Mediterranean drinking culture.

This article was published at Telegraph Blogs

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