“The science is clear.” We have heard that one before in other contexts, like anthropogenic global warming, but now the assertion has come from the British government’s chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, in calling parents to prohibit their children from drinking until they are 15 and then continuing to supervise their intake until 17.
Donaldson himself seemed confused over what science he was talking about. When pressed on the Radio 4 Today programme, he admitted that small amounts of alcohol could not harm a child. Alcohol after all is a natural product of metabolism, and everybody’s metabolism has to handle a little. There is no such thing as a total teetotaller.
Donaldson instead seemed to be arguing there was no evidence for the proposition that introducing children gradually to alcohol made them less likely to become binge drinkers or alcoholics. That may be true as far as it goes, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and there is at least plenty of anecdotal support for the idea that bringing up children to drink responsibly, however that is defined, is better than prohibition. It is also true that some people are predisposed to become problem drinkers whatever regime their parents impose, but since alcohol is part of our social fabric, it surely makes sense for most parents to build up a little familiarity and tolerance in their children while they still have some influence over them.
It is indeed our social fabric that is under attack from the Donaldson wing, mixing up an understandable determination to curb binge drinking with a misguided attack on our way of life. The outburst was timed in the run up to Christmas when many normally moderate drinkers will be guilty of some excess that admittedly their livers would be better off without. But with his pervasive negative stance, Donaldson continues to overlook the pleasure and joy that alcohol can bring, and he would be better off preaching enlightened moderation instead of leaning towards prohibition.
Perhaps, in the spirit of these prescriptive times, Donaldson should instead lay down some rules over what sort of alcoholic drinks we should give our children. He should advocate diluted wine and warm weak beer, rather than alcopops, gin and tonic or other sweetened beverages, which by disguising the taste of alcohol are more likely to breed addiction. There is always the chance that given a mix of rough old red wine and water, or an insipid bitter, your children will hand it back in disgust.
Then Donaldson should conclude his homily by preaching that even moderation itself can be taken to excess, and that it does us good on occasion, especially after a year with its fair share of bad news, to indulge in a little wild partying.