I am linking to an article in the Irish Times reporting recent comments by Róisín Shortall minister of state in the department of health that parents who allow their teenage children to drink at home, to teach them how to drink responsibly, may actually be doing more harm than good.
If what such parents are doing is wrong, that suggests Ms Shortall would favour a policy of total abstinence from alcohol before the legal drinking age of 18. That has the merit of consistency, since that’s what a legal age restriction means, but I think it’s bad policy socially. By allowing their children to drink at home, parents make it possible for young people to learn about alcohol in a safe supervised environment where level headed experienced people can stop them doing anything stupid. If young people’s first taste of alcohol comes when they’ve moved away from home, at university for example, and they’re trying it with other similarly inexperienced people, or slightly older but not very much more responsible people who may not have a parent’s concern for their child, the results are likely to be a lot darker.
What is needed instead is educational programmes to change people’s attitudes to drink. I would promote drink education in schools. They should say first that alcohol is a poison, so it can only be safely consumed in moderation. (Note: As paracelsus said, ‘the dose makes the poison’. Things are harmful or toxic to humans or not only in sufficient doses. Even water is fatal if consumed in excess (see here and here)). There should be lots of education on the harmful effects of excessive alcohol on the body because young people take that sort of thing in. Next they should promote taking pleasure in the quality of what we drink rather than the quantity. If people were better at talking about tastes and smells, they might eat a more healthy and varied diet too as a consequence. There should be practical tastings in schools, so people learn how to appreciate wine and beer in a supervised environment. Finally, the education should challenge the prevailing misconception, if Kate Fox is right, that it is the alcohol itself that lowers inhibitions and affects our behaviour and not the social settings where alcohol is consumed. As the man says in ‘the Guard’ you only have to worry about drinking too much because you’re not to be trusted when you do. Young people need to be taught that they can drink responsibly. They need to learn that they can still control themselves after they’ve had a few drinks and should’nt expect to get a free pass for whatever they get up to on a night out. But these are things that you need to learn. I don’t think it is humane for Ms Shortall to insist that young people learn these lessons ‘the hard way’, through bad experiences, when they can be taught and a great deal of hurt and misadventure saved on all sides.
One thing I do agree with the minister on, however, which is also mentioned in the article, is that it would be good to close the loophole allowing retailers who sell alcohol below cost to claim back the sales tax (VAT). Below cost selling of alcohol only encourages bad drinking patterns and retailers pouring oil on the flames shouldn’t get a hand out from the state.