We need to talk about alcohol

I am a non-drinker for the basic reason that I just don’t like the stuff.

Nevertheless, it is an indisputable fact that this also makes me considerably healthier and also a considerably lower burden on society. We need to begin to talk about this more generally than just with regard to driving.

What is important here is, as noted recently, we have done this with driving (at least at night). Where once it was entirely tolerable to down ten pints and drive home, and the consequent deaths and injuries caused were just seen as the way things were, we eventually decided that this was no longer acceptable. Over decades we have reached the stage where drink-driving, at least driving immediately after drinking alcohol, is simply not socially acceptable at all.

So why is getting on an aeroplane drunk acceptable?

A recent BBC documentary showed reliable evidence that one out of five airline cabin crew have been physically assaulted by drunk passengers. More worrying still, it also showed that female cabin crew deem sexual harassment by passengers to be just “part of the job” – something which just happens. How on earth is it acceptable that taking on one particular career will present you with a high chance of being physically assaulted and a fair chance of being sexually harassed? Is this something we are all just supposed to allow?

On top of this we have had recent reports of drink-driving in daytime or on the job (in one case, horrendously, killing eight); of over 100 students at Queen’s reporting they have been subject of sexual assault; of the cost of alcohol in everything from criminal damage to long-term health complexities. The cost, more often than not, is borne by entirely innocent victims – who see anything from flights delayed to domestic violence or outright sexual harassment on the job imposed upon them. If tobacco did all this we would be on to it in a flash – indeed, we now mock the days, not that long ago, when smokers were seen as cool. So why is alcohol still a bit of a joke?

There is in fact a very specific problem with alcohol, as noted in another recent BBC documentary. One specific effect of alcohol is it overrides our “stop” function (more or less, as this is referred to more often, it removes our inhibitions). The fun element is this may, for example, encourage us to get up and sing karaoke when we would never do so sober; but when it comes to everything from rowdiness on planes to outright sexual or physical assault of staff, then it really becomes very serious.

The tendency is to deal with this one issue at a time. Having dealt with alcohol and nighttime driving, we may now move on slowly to restrict access to planes for drunk people (Northern Ireland already restricts access to public transport on this basis). Yet even this, while it would be a fair and welcome move, is only tackling one of the negative social consequences of alcohol at a time. People who would profess themselves appalled by sexual harassment of cabin crews will nevertheless accept the support of anyone from airlines to hospitality lobbyists who rely on alcohol sales, when in fact the latter leads inevitably to the former (via that loss of inhibition).

Of course, making this general and obvious point will not make anyone electorally popular. Yet we have done it with tobacco and in some specific instances with alcohol. We can no longer tolerate the broader and inevitable negative social consequences (as well as the detrimental impact on long-term health) of alcohol without a broader and more meaningful conversation about just how serious these are and what reasonable action we need to take – action taken not to deal with them once they occur, but to prevent them in the first place.

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