ASKED to select an image that illustrates the problem of Christmas binge-drinking, many people would plump for a familiar media favourite: mini-skirted girls collapsed on street kerbs with their legs skewed out.
Young people on the lash are not, however, the focus of the latest pre-festive season alcohol awareness drive. Launched last week by the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU), the campaign opened with the testimony of Catherine Park, a mother who faced up to her own alcohol problem after waking with a hangover at 2pm on Christmas Day, having failed to get up for present-opening with her children. The look on her daughters' faces, she says, made her decide to deal with her drinking.
It is a timely reminder, since grown-up, mature drinking is a serious problem, as demonstrated earlier this year by Alastair Campbell's Panorama documentary, Britain's Hidden Alcoholics. The home, not the pub or the club, is where our national drink problem begins. That's where the cirrhosis starts.
The volume of alcohol drunk per capita has risen by 60% since 1960, and by 21% since my own childhood in 1980. Clearly, then, it's not the young of today that represent the big shift, but us adults, parents, the ones who come home and sigh, "I could do with a drink", then spend the evening knocking back a bottle of Rioja. Contrast this with my own mum and dad, who barely had a drink outside Christmas and birthdays.
Booze, of course, is just one substance of many that we are highly prone to abusing – sugar and caffeine being another two. But alcohol is unique in the way its effects extend beyond health. We can't discuss it without also talking about underage sex, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, street violence, domestic violence and child neglect. Alcohol misuse is estimated to cost Scotland £2.25 billion per year in extra services across the NHS, police, courts, social services and lost economic productivity.
Peer-pressure drinking among the young – the kind seen in all those late-night photos, and indulged in, we are told, by increasing numbers of girls – carries the risk of alcohol poisoning, unsafe sex and casual violence. This is the kind of drinking that provokes a lot of head-shaking and ogling, since predominantly it is about sex.
The lifetime relationship one develops with alcohol, however, is influenced not just by your peers, but by what goes on in your family.
It is partly about the predispositions you inherit, but also about what you see in the home and absorb as being the norm, which explains why the new VRU campaign is aiming to get adults, and particularly parents, thinking about their own attitudes to drinking at Christmas.
A recently published Demos report showed that a mother's drinking has a far greater impact than a father's on how much their children will drink when older. This study found that at the age of 16, teenagers were mainly influenced by their peers in how much they drank, but that by 34, the likelihood of them binge-drinking rose in line with how much they had thought, as a child, that their mother drank.
This is dispiriting news for us ladies, particularly since it seems that currently we are witnessing a backlash against female drinking. There are probably two reasons for this. Women are clearly drinking more – they have joined the men in this habit – and therefore experiencing more of the health consequences that were previously the domain of men. In the past 20 years, for instance, the number of women aged 25-29 being treated for chronic liver disease has risen seven-fold.
But the other reason is that there is still some residual idea that drunkenness is more shameful for women and that they should get back to their traditional feminine habits of abstinence. The words "shame" and "stigma" are all too often used as possible sticks to beat girls back into resisting the demon drink. This is partly because alcohol might lead to sex, but also because women are still viewed as (and often are) the main carers, the ones who bear the ultimate responsibility for children.
Some would like to see us go back to fully stigmatising women. Writing in this newspaper last year, psychologist Dr Aric Sigman suggested that "perhaps it's time Scotland re-stigmatised alcohol abuse as something shameful", adding that, since young women are most at risk from heavy drinking, "this sentiment would be all the more effective if the stigma came with a generous serving of sexual inequality: heavy drinking and drunkenness being even more 'shameful' for females".
Personally, I don't think we can ever attain social equality without an equal right to get drunk. I'm inclined to agree with a friend who argues that one of the great things about the "northern drinking cultures", as opposed to the more restrained Mediterranean ones, is that they embrace the idea of men and women getting drunk together – and that this makes for a culture that treats women more equally.
So, to tackle this problem we need to talk about men as well as women. And we need to allow ourselves to treat alcohol as more than just a laugh. In Scotland, it is almost impossible to tell someone that they have a drink problem, because they will immediately point to all their friends who drink at least as much as them.
Of course, there are great things about getting drunk. There is a need, among other things, collectively to let go, to allow oneself to look a fool, and that's why many of us don't want to let go of our drinking culture. But there are consequences to this. Rather than just pretending they don't exist and knocking back another double, it is time we acknowledged that there is a balance to be found. And joking with our kids about our latest hangover might not be appropriate – even at Christmas.
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