I started writing about alcohol nearly seven years ago now. Little did I imagine I would still be hard at it today. “Why are you?” you may well ask.
Well, for one, alcohol problems still kill 3m a year globally, playing a role in the untimely demise of one-in-ten people under 50, and bring misery to many millions more.
That’s a story, even if few seem to care. But, for two, just as important, is that tackling alcohol problems hints at routes to wider renewal when we seem short of ideas.
Alcohol problems arise from an interplay of individuals, social groups, business and regulation. An effort to minimise alcohol harm allows us to imagine ways to improve all four.
As individuals we can learn to make better sense of the misleading first-hand impressions alcohol gives and to identify the half-truths passed to us by word-of-mouth and media.
Alcohol sellers employ populist methods: dubious science, misleading propaganda, uncritical coverage, denying consumers information and opportunistic advertising.
Not being duped can reduce our risk of harm, reduce the chances we harm others, slash our overheads, improve our critical thinking, and find upsides typically ascribed to alcohol elsewhere.
Our social groups, meanwhile, are improved by becoming more accepting of differences on this choice. This requires us to develop tolerance and respect to replace of a herd mentality.
On the bigger scale, it means holding elected politicians and nobody else is responsible for alcohol regulation. They cannot be allowed to evade blame for what is their indivisible responsibility.
Fixing the institutional flaws, influence peddling and muddled thinking which allows persistent regulatory failure could form part of a programme of democratic renewal.
The type of principles, laws and institutions which prevent undue commercial influence on alcohol regulation could be applied other vexed areas of government decision-making.
Alcohol offers a window onto our vulnerabilities as individuals and as societies, and should provide our political leaders with plenty of ideas and inspiration for how to improve lives.
This is why I think it remains important to write about alcohol. It is unglamorous, awkward and woefully ignored, but it is also a rich source of untapped ideas on how to improve at a time when we badly need them. ■