As the Rudd government’s tax hike on “Alcopops” faces an uncertain future in the Senate, the debate on the issue continues to show Australia’s failure to learn from, or indeed even to notice, international experience.
No surprise, then, that our media have paid no attention to the weekend’s announcement in France of a crackdown on underage drinking. All sale of alcohol to under-18s will be prohibited (currently 16 and 17-year-olds can be served wine or beer), service stations will be prevented from selling alcohol, and a new advertising campaign will target binge drinking among the young.
According to The International Herald Tribune’s translation, health minister Roselyne Bachelot said that “Almost half of youths said they had had five glasses of alcohol on a single night on at least one occasion in the previous 30 days, which is the definition of binge drinking”.
Like many countries of western and southern Europe, France’s drinking laws are more liberal than those in Australia, Britain or the US. But the movement seems to be towards prohibition — despite the fact that those policies have not been a conspicuous success, and that countries with less restrictive laws if anything tend to display fewer alcohol-related problems and a more healthy drinking culture.
Cause and effect, of course, are not easy to establish; more liberal drinking laws might be a symptom of a healthier attitude to alcohol rather than a cause of it. But at the very least one would think lawmakers would pause before adopting policies that have failed elsewhere.
Not everyone, however, judges results the same way. The United States, with a decade’s experience of prohibition in the 1920s, and even now a drinking age of 21, has massive problems with alcoholism, including teenage binge drinking.
But it does have fewer drinkers and lower alcohol consumption than comparable countries, including Australia — it’s just that some combination of law and culture pushes that consumption into especially unhealthy forms.
For most of us, that’s a bad thing. But for puritans, and for politicians who pander to them, the real problem is pleasure. People need to be prevented from enjoying themselves, or at least made to feel guilty about it — especially young people, who don’t have the political clout to fight back.
The president of the French students’ association put it well, saying that the new measures would “infantilise young people, when we would be better off making them more responsible.” But for some people, that’s a scarier idea than binge drinking.
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