"What remains as the overall problem is a continuing belief by the majority of the population that alcohol is causing many major problems in our society. This belief permits the government to tax alcohol at increasing rates, and the increase is something we should worry about, but the only way to prevent further increases is to look at why there is such widespread belief about the problems of alcohol harm." 1
He's right of course, if the majority believe this, their elected representatives will want to be seen to be doing something about it.
In an attempt to get this straight in my own head I'll try to break this down.
In the first place, "alcohol" doesn't cause any problems. It just sits there. It needs to get into a human before anything interesting happens. Alcohol (Ethanol, Ethyl alcohol) is toxic - it has well known toxic effects. 2
Take the brain for starters. The effects of alcohol on the brain are fairly well understood nowadays, but we need to be clear about the kind of alcohol exposure we're talking about. We can consider 3 main periods of alcohol exposure: Fetal, Juvenile and Adult.
Research suggests that the fetus should be protected from levels of alcohol that cause no particular problems for adults. Otherwise, we may see a range of physical, learning, and behavioral effects in the developing brain (none good). Some of these learning and behavioural disorders will be associated with significant costs for the individual and wider society.
Juveniles show some paradoxical responses to alcohol. They may be less obviously "intoxicated" in response to a particular alcohol dose that an adult, yet have at least as much loss of judgement and memory. Given that many young people are rather less risk-averse than we (adults) might wish - this is a wicked combination. Also, young people are developing behaviours that may stay with them throughout their lives. It's a concern that habitual alcohol use may develop, leading to chronic high exposure later.
How do adults drink? Some not at all, some sporadically, some steadily. Some in happy social groups, some in noisy gangs. Some savour alcoholic beverages in calm solitude. Some belt down a couple of bottles of cheap booze to escape dull lives, to shut out the hideous emptiness of existence, or the carping inner voice of guilt and failure. Some become prey to melancholy, some prone to violence.
At worst, drinking can cause terrible damage, to the liver, brain, heart and family. To deny this is to beg to be marginalised in the debate. It seems to me that alcohol consumption - the drinking of alcoholic beverages - does create problems, has costs. But many of us like our chosen drinks - we like the taste - we like the effects. We're relaxed, friendlier, funnier. We like the social benefits, the pubs, clubs, opportunities for meeting and interacting with our neighbours - and strangers. We even like the craft element of some of our drinks - some drinks even approach art. These are the benefits.
The new puritans, who choose only to see things in black and white, can only see "binge" and and abstinence. Self-denial or hoggish wallowing. For them, a world of cheerful moderation with episodes of saturnalian indulgence is unimaginable.
If alcohol consumption has some negative health and social impacts, can it be a good thing? The puritans say no. If we value the positives of drinking, should we deny the costs? We mustn't be backed into an over-simplified position in response to the simplistic arguments of the new-puritans. Drinking, like reality, is complex. A lot of people (if not all of us) find it hard to hold apparently contradictory ideas, but as Mayor Quimby said,
"It can be two things." 3
2. MSDS for ethyl alcohol
3. The Quimby File