Today David Cameron addresses hospital staff on how to change the culture of binge drinking that’s become established in the UK. That’s a tough subject with no short-term easy-fix solutions. But there are some answers that can bring real change, if we’re prepared to tackle the heart of the issue. Our Prime Minister knows this is a huge problem in society, with massive economic and social costs.
The cost to the economy is staggering, costing the taxpayer through the NHS £2.7billion a year, including £1billion on accident and emergency services. This is part of a wider cost to society, which has been put at between £17billion and £22billion a year when road accidents, health problems, crime and lost productivity are taken into account.
Aric Sigman’s book Alcohol Nation presents further alarming evidence, showing that in 2010 one person every seven minutes was admitted to hospital for a health problem directly attributed to alcohol, and this figure has increase by 54% in the last 10 years. That excludes people with conditions merely exacerbated by drink, such as diabetes or most types of heart disease. So almost one million people a year clog up the NHS specifically because of alcohol; add to that people injured when drunk or victims of alcohol-related violence and the numbers are far higher.
But perhaps the greater cost is to people: to families that break up and to children who are brought up from a young age thinking that excessive drinking is fun and fine. A 2010 report by ChildWise showed that half of 10-14 year olds interviewed had seen their parents drunk; 8 out of 10 had seen a change in the way they behaved; girls over 11 were asked why adults drank until they lost control and vomited and several responded saying it was part of having ‘a good night out’.
Drinking has become ingrained in our culture and for the majority excessive drinking is linked to celebration. So for most people the thought of Christmas without alcohol would be bizarre. And listen to interviews of sports stars who’ve won a cup: they almost always talk of going out and ‘having a good time’ – synonymous with getting legless – to the smiles of the pundits back in the studio, and so the nation gets the message that such behaviour is a good and acceptable part of celebrating. Unless the Prime Minister can change that kind of subtle but pervasive message, he’s not going to change our drinking habits.
Of course some would say that we should adopt a more relaxed approach to alcohol, introducing children to alcohol slowly at a young age, to encourage responsible drinking. Surveys show that 70% of UK parents think is is the best approach. However all the research show this has the opposite effect, and that children are twice as likely to drink excessively outside the home if they are allowed to drink at home. Interestingly the French – who’ve been seen as positive role-models of this approach for many years – presently die of alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver at twice the rate of people in the UK. Add to all this the fact that pubs are part of the social fabric of many communities, especially villages, and that alcohol is widely available to buy at a cheap price, and the PM has a tough job on his hands.
On the other side of the argument are those who say that we shouldn’t deprive people of their right to get tipsy. After all, so many people lead dull and mundane lives, why should the PM, or anyone else for that matter, stop them having a good time? After all, isn’t everyone allowed a little ‘high’ every now and then? But the problem with that view is that it’s justifying the wrong solution to the problem. If the diagnosis is that many people live pointless lives, surely the answer is not to encourage them to drown their sorrows but to help them find meaning and purpose.
And that’s why the heart of this nation’s alcohol problem is a spiritual one. Most religious leaders can see it, but are often afraid to say so, because it can sound so pious, so simplistic and – for those like me who choose not to drink at all – so self-righteous. But it’s true.
When people find meaning and purpose in life, their need of alcohol diminishes. That is so clearly charted in UK statistics from the 18th and 19th centuries during the so-called Evangelical Revival. As more people received forgiveness and the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ, so alcohol sales decreased and pubs closed. Fascinating.
Last week I met a woman from Scarborough who had become a Christian after a number of years of addiction to alcohol. She told me that following her conversion she had the ability to say ‘no’ although the desire for alcohol didn’t diminish until someone prayed for her to be released from the ties that drink had to her life. After that she told me, the addiction was gone. Now she, like many others, finds that the ‘high’ that comes from being filled with the Holy Spirit is much greater than any artificial stimulant.
It is no coincidence that when the bible says (in Ephesians 5:18) ‘do not get drunk’ it then says ‘instead be filled with the Holy Spirit’. God has a better plan for human beings than having to simply struggle through from one Friday or Saturday night to the next, hoping to find some happiness in excessive drinking. Instead he wants us to invite the Spirit of Jesus Christ to be a work in us, transforming us, empowering us and shaping us into people who love him and love others.
Changing our binge drinking nation can only partly be achieved by politicians. Lasting social change involves spiritual transformation. And real spiritual transformation comes from being filled with the Spirit of Jesus Christ.