‘Passive drinking’ is a step too far

Health lobby attempts to draw children into debate is just hysteria

Health campaigners have argued that any drinking can upset children

“I love children. They give you so much leverage.” So spoke Jim Carrey’s redneck boss at the conclusion of a divorce case in the film ‘Liar Liar’.

That scene came back to mind when I came across the latest anti-alcohol salvo: the attraction of introducing children into the ‘no drinking is safe’ campaign has proved irresistible.

We’ve already been told that any amount of alcohol consumption is dangerous; and, of course, those who seek to portray drink as a demonic substance have for several years used the clampdown on tobacco as a campaigning template.

So, pretty much as you’d expect, the concept of “passive drinking” has been introduced to the debate.

It’s not entirely new.

Back in 2009, Sir Liam Donaldson, then chief medical officer for England, suggested that passive drinking was inflicting untold damage on children whose mothers drink while pregnant or whose parents drink too much.

He also pointed to the 7000 victims of drunken drivers and 39,000 alcohol-related sexual assaults per year.

It’s a glimpse of the obvious that alcohol misuse has the capacity to inflict serious damage on families and society.

Drunkenness is plainly not compatible with responsible parenting.

But the war against alcohol has long lost a sense of proportion in a way that threatens to undermine sensible health messages.

A new study produced by Alcohol Focus Scotland, the Institute of Alcohol Studies and the Alcohol and Families Alliance suggests that even low-level drinking –within the guideline amount of 14 units per week – is capable of upsetting children.

“Worrying impacts” can begin “from relatively low levels of parental alcohol consumption” – even though the findings were drawn “from a sample overwhelmingly drinking below the [chief medical officers’] low-risk drinking guidelines”.

It concludes that, “it may be wrong to assume that negative impacts of parental drinking are only associated with higher levels of consumption”.

One of these impacts might be “disruption to a child’s bedtime routine”.

Drunkenness is not compatible with parenting. But the war against alcohol has lost a sense of proportion.

Then the children’s commissioner for England pitched in: “Many parents make the unwise assumption that even moderate levels of drinking doesn’t bother their children.”

So, any level of alcohol consumption not only endangers an individual’s health – it also threatens to destabilise children’s upbringing. Parents who drink in front of their children are bad parents.

In effect, no one should drink at all.

You may think that these messages would have as much grip with the public as predictions that the world will come to an end on a given date.

But they do have traction with activists in the licensing process.

Not so long ago, I represented a client who operated a tiny suburban café and wanted to provide a small external drinking area.

A local shopkeeper tried to block the application on the basis that youngsters passing the premises on their way to a Scout hall would “see” people drinking.

For good measure, the objector threw in his concern that passers-by would be subjected to second-hand smoke.

I’ve also been involved in an application opposed by a health board because the presence of children in a branch of a well-respected family restaurant chain would “normalise” their attitude to alcohol consumption and could lead to problems with alcohol in later life.

But these fanatical onslaughts ignore a clear trend evidenced by official statistics: youngsters growing up in the UK have been described as “Generation Abstemious”, turning away from alcohol in growing numbers.

In fact, the latest figures produced by the Office for National Statistics just six months ago (for 2016) reveal that 27% of those in the 16 to 24 year old bracket said they did not drink – compared to 19% in 2006.

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Jack Cummins is one of Scotland’s leading licensing lawyers. Every month he writes on licensing law and answers readers’ questions in SLTN.

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Jack Cummins is unable to enter into personal correspondence on readers’ questions. The advice offered in SLTN is published for information only. No responsibility for loss occasioned by persons acting or refraining from action as a result of material contained in SLTN can be accepted by the author or publisher.