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Last Updated: Monday, 10 September 2007, 06:06 GMT 07:06 UK
Moral panic claim on drink binges
A person lying in the street following an evening out
Drink-related deaths and hospital admissions doubled in recent years
A "moral panic" over binge drinking is nothing new and there may be no "quick fix solutions," claims an academic.

Peter Borsay of Aberystwyth University said there were similar claims today and in the early 1700s that problem drinking showed a broken society.

But he said it was not the drinking that should be compared, but the "moral panic and media hype" of both eras.

Public and political concern has risen amid an increase in alcohol-related deaths and hospital admissions.

Prof Borsay has published a paper, Binge drinking and moral panics: historical parallels? which looks at the "gin craze" of the early 18th Century and the similarities with today.

He argued that while direct comparisons with drinking behaviour then and now "appear striking", they have been over-stretched.

Pint of beer
It is not drinking behaviour that merits the comparison, but the moral panics that characterised both periods
Prof Peter Borsay

But he said "media-constructed moral panics" had been typical in both areas, which were symbolic of wider anxieties about "social breakdown".

His comments came amid apparent widespread concern about the modern binge drinking culture in the UK.

In June, the British Medical Association said it wanted more use of street drinking bans, an increase in taxation and a cut in the driving alcohol limit.

Relaxed licensing laws

Research last week by the Institute of Child Health also suggested that teenage binge drinkers were more likely to use drugs, become alcoholics and have a criminal conviction in later life.

It was responding to figures showing that deaths and hospital admissions due to alcohol had both doubled in recent years.

Last year, then Labour Party chairman Hazel Blears said Britons could not emulate European drinking culture because they "enjoy getting drunk," although she said relaxed licensing laws had not had the disastrous results predicted by some.

A Conservative policy group has urged more tax on alcohol to help raise 400m a year to treat of alcohol abuse, and Tory leader David Cameron has said mending Britain's "broken society" is the country's biggest problem.

Beer Street by William Hogarth
Comparisons are drawn with artist Hogarth's 18th Century portrayal of drinking

Prof Borsay said: "Media, public and political concern about problem drinking is not new and the alcoholic excesses of past generations are well chronicled.

"At first glance, the parallels between the 18th Century gin craze and contemporary binge-drinking appear striking.

"But it is not drinking behaviour that merits the comparison, but the moral panics that characterised both periods, fuelled by pressure groups, the media and perceptions of government complacency."

Prof Borsay questioned whether "today's policymakers are dealing with a dramatic new phenomenon" that requires immediate action, or "an endemic feature of our society that is resistant to quick fix solutions".

He said the gin craze was finally brought under control with a combination of increased tax and licensing fees and restrictions on retail outlets.

"No doubt concerted action by the government and police could bring a similar end to binge drinking today, but whether this would produce an overall drop in alcohol consumption and other social problems and a more disciplined and conformist youth remains questionable," he added.

The Victorian binge drinkers
02 Dec 05 |  Magazine
Cameron aiming to 'mend society'
14 Sep 07 |  UK Politics
Consultant warns of binge dangers
04 Sep 07 |  Derbyshire
High price of 'drinking culture'
19 Jun 07 |  South of Scotland


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