Sunday, December 11, 2005

Three Drinks and You're Out

"Three drinks and you're out?" That's the plan proposed by John Smith, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and one of Britain's leading medical authorities. In the words of Jon Stewart, "Whhaaaaa?"
Following the recent ban on smoking in public buildings, Smith is agitating for a three drink minimum per visit to a pub or bar. Let's forget for a moment that we're talking about a nation that, until last month, still forced its pubs to close earlier than anyplace else in the civilized world. And let's focus several of the gaping holes in this proposal:

Pragmatics: Three drinks per pub is highly unlikely to mean three drinks per evening. Rather, it sounds like an invitation to pub-hop which, while it might be a big hit with the kids, and get the regulars out of their local and moving about town, doesn't seem terribly likely to reduce total consumption. It does, however, seem like it might be encouraging a fair number of people to go hop into their cars and drive to another bar after three pints. Wonderful.

Paternalism: Smith considers the restrictions on alcohol a logical extension of recent curbs on public smoking. Unfortunately, there are substantial and significant differences. The public smoking bans - a growing trend in much of the world, and on both sides of the pond - are aimed not at individual smokers but at the experience of individuals, typically non-smokers, in public places. While it may be a fortunate side effect if public smoking bans cut down on the actual amount of smoking that takes place their real import, and the reason they have garnered such popular support, is that they allow non-smokers to go for a drink (or five) at a pub and not have to dryclean their clothes afterward to get rid of the smell.

The three drink limit proposal shares very little in common with the smoking bans in this respect. While the health of smokers is a secondary goal, the health of the drinkers is cited as the primary purpose of the proposed legislation. And that is where the word "paternalism" comes in.

The smoke from the gentleman at the next table gets in my hair, ruins my appetite, and gives me, eventually, lung cancer. That same gentleman's fourth vodka tonic doesn't really impact me in the slightest. So why, I might reasonably ask, should I take that fourth drink away from him?

Sure it's probably eroding his liver and, perhaps, costing me some money ( in the form of higher national medical costs) but it's not going to kill him today. He might get hit by a bus first. Plus, he might be a big-time sky-diver. And that's dangerous, and he might get injured, but I'm not going to tell him to give that up, am I? Unless that fourth drink is going to make him get up, walk over to my booth, and vomit in my lap, as far as I'm concerned he can have it.

Frankly, if we're going to tell people how to live their lives simply on the basis of what is good for them - as opposed to, with the smoking bans, what is good for us, which we're perfectly happy to do - we could aim a lot higher than that fourth drink.

On the other hand, I would find it amusing if the British, shortly after they finally managed to get their pubs to stay open past eleven, enacted legislation that made sure every patron had been cut off by eight.


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