Page last updated at 10:53 GMT, Monday, 2 March 2009

Rory the puppet 'tackles heavy drinking'

By Branwen Jeffreys
Health correspondent, BBC News

The story of one man's battle against booze

The village of Blackburn in West Lothian is a small close-knit community which regards itself as not much different from many others in Scotland.

This village of just under 5,000 people has its fair share of the social problems that are often found within areas of higher deprivation, including those linked to alcohol.

Hospital admissions for alcohol misuse are higher here than the Scottish average. The rate calculated per hundred thousand of population is 850 across Scotland, but 1,120 in Blackburn.

It's one reason why a cross-community alcohol project is now under way here.

One thing that is no different is the price of alcohol.

The children are becoming more and more aware there is a problem with alcohol
Lisa Conaghan
There are four off-licence shops. A quick trip into two of them armed with 10 illustrates what it is possible to buy.

In the first for 10.55 I bought half a bottle of vodka (37.5% ABV) and five cans of slightly stronger than standard lager (4.8%).

I had already been told by several people locally that cider was the most popular drink among teenagers and young adults. The second shop was able to sell me seven one litre bottles of strong cider (7.5%) for 9.73.

Hand puppet

A report by the charity Alcohol Focus Scotland late last year found concern that a heavy drinking culture had become the norm here, with under-age drinking and drinking on the streets identified as problems in a community survey.

Rory the puppet dog
Rory is used to teach children about alcohol dangers
While the Scottish government considers what action to take on alcohol the community action programme here is just beginning the process of trying to change attitudes to alcohol.

Our Lady of Lourdes primary school is one of nine across West Lothian to be using multimedia teaching packs based on the story of Rory, a dog whose owner drinks too much.

Armed with a large fluffy hand puppet of Rory, teacher Lisa Conaghan takes a class of eight- and nine-year-olds through Rory's experience of being neglected and ignored until his owner gets help with his alcohol problem.

She said: "The children are becoming more and more aware there is a problem with alcohol - they mention it often in our day-to-day communications.

"They are very aware of alcohol, of family members who perhaps have problems, they are willing to share that and we want to foster that."

The young age at which some people start drinking is one reason why the Rory pack has been developed for primary school age children.

Pricing impact

A few miles away in the neighbouring town of Bathgate Ben Mcphilhemy, is 35 and struggling with alcohol dependency. Ben began drinking when he was 12 years old, joining in with older lads hanging out on the swings in the local park.

They would'nae come near me
Ben Mcphilhemy
By his twenties his drinking was out of control, and he has at times drunk between 10 and 14 bottles of wine a day.

He said he was managing to have some days of not drinking and was trying to get help, encouraged by the reaction of his two children, who are both under two.

"They would'nae come near me. It's heartbreaking - my wee daughter who's a year old came up and cuddled me and kissed me on the cheek. I broke down, it was quite emotional."

At the GP practice, where Ben has been seeking help, Dr James McCallum is sceptical about the extent to which any single measure, such as minimum pricing, could influence drinking patterns.

He believes patients on a lower income, who are more price-sensitive, might well moderate their drinking, but the impact on more affluent patients would be much smaller.

Flagship policy

Scotland was the first nation in the UK to introduce the ban on smoking in public places, but even those in the frontline of dealing with alcohol problems accept it is different.

Alcohol figures
Dr McCallum, who is the GP lead in the West Lothian Community Health and Care Partnership, says there is a more complex equation: "It's clearly unhealthy to smoke regardless of the amount you're smoking. With alcohol it is much more open to question.

"When you're drinking about the recommended limits you are exposing yourself to social and health risks, when drinking within the limits it may even have positive health benefits."

For the Scottish government there is another political consideration. By the time of the introduction of the smoking ban under the previous Labour administration smokers were in a minority of the population.

Now the Scottish Nationalists want greater restrictions on the price and availability of alcohol to be one of their flagship policies.

While supported by public health experts they face the considerable lobbying power of the UK's largest retail companies and they are up against the reality that, while the number of smokers has gradually declined, many people regularly enjoy an alcoholic drink.

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