At work in the 1980s, I was regarded as an unreasonable extremist for asking that just one person smoked at a time during team meetings. It was not uncommon for four or five people to smoke at the same time within a small office.
It was in January 1983 that the Cannon-ABC chain of cinemas made all its premises totally smoke-free, the first chain to do so. Until December 1992 you could still buy tobacco from hospital shops. Smoke-free regulations covering all indoor work-places in England, including bars, clubs and restaurants, came into force as recently as July 2007. (Some places, such as certain smoking hotel rooms, nursing homes, prisons and submarines (!) were initially exempted, as were Royal Palaces).
Just six years later it is hard to imagine ever returning to an era where offices and cinemas had a fog of cigarette smoke and the smell of tobacco smoke sat heavily on people’s clothes and hair, even of non-smokers.
In 1985 I would not have predicted that there would come a time when to light up in a closed environment, on public transport, or in a restaurant, would be regarded as very anti-social and would, in fact, be banned by law. But the health arguments have been won and public opinion has turned.
Today I might be regarded as an unreasonable extremist for questioning the role, cost, health consequences, and anti-social nature of alcohol in society. But the health arguments are powerful, and public opinion might just be on the turn.
The report published on Sunday by the Centre for Social Justice, No Quick Fix, highlighted the growing problem associated with alcohol:
“While frequent alcohol consumption has decreased, dangerous drinking is on the rise. The most widely abused drug in the UK, alcohol, is causing increasing harm to society. Currently the bill stands at £21 billion a year. Alcohol-related deaths have doubled since 1991 and liver disease is now one of the ‘Big Five Killers’ and the only one which is increasing.
“Serious drinking has increased: alcohol-related admissions to hospital have doubled in a decade and are continuing to rise. Increasing readmissions to hospital show that treatment is not working.”
The Health Count survey 2012, found that 13% of the population never drink, 27% drink less that once a week, and 28% drink once or twice a week. For the majority, 68%, alcohol plays little or no part in the their lives. Yet alcohol dominates cultural attitudes and social settings, just as cigarettes once did.
I wonder whether, in twenty years time, we will look back with amazement at today’s libertarian attitude to alcohol. Increasing anti-social behaviour, an alcohol-fuelled epidemic of health problems, and the increasing cost to the public purse, will force something to be done. I just hope it won’t take twenty years.
(This post first appeared in the Brighton and Hove Independent, 6th September 2013)