Britain's blurry vision

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IT COULD happen to anybody, really. Go out for a meal with the wife, have a few too many, she starts to nag, and before you know what's happened, she's lying on the floor covered in bruises. For most, this sort of tiff remains private; but for Paul Gascoigne, one of England's star footballers as well as a well-known drinker and self-confessed wife-beater, the photographers were there last week to record his wife Sheryl's beaten face, and there were cries of outrage when Mr Gascoigne was subsequently selected for the England squad.

It has been a bad week for public drunks. Sir Nicholas Scott, MP for Kensington and Chelsea, looks finished politically. Earlier this year, he lost his driving licence after rushing off after an accident; last month, he had to be scooped off the pavement after a reception at the Conservative Party conference. On November 4th, local party officials declared they had no confidence in him.

Alcohol deserves more of this sort of publicity. The Police Superintendents' Association reckons that it is involved in around half of crimes; the British Crime Survey found that 41% of victims of violent crime reckoned that the perpetrator was drunk. The financial costs are debatable: one estimate claims that the medical bills, the road accident damage, the policing and legal costs add up to L1.36 billion; including the economic costs of unemployment and premature death, the figure comes to L2.4 billion.

Alcohol is a drug; people like drugs; drugs, if misused, do dreadful damage. Society is right to be wary of drugs, and the government is right to run education programmes warning young people of the consequences of misuse. Yet the strange thing is that these campaigns fail to put alcohol in its proper place, alongside the illegal drugs that people have been taught to fear. A drunk is "merry"; a dope-smoker is a "drug-crazed fiend". Paul Gascoigne gets his place in the England squad, but Ed Giddins, a cricketer who tested positive for cocaine this summer, was banned from playing for 19 months.

Yet, arguably, alcohol does more damage than heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana. There are between 4,000 and 40,000 deaths a year in Britain from alcohol, depending on whether you count only those diseases directly attributable to alcohol, or those in which alcohol was a contributory factor. Around 500 people a year die from using or abusing drugs. Probably the disparity arises partly because illegal drugs are less easily available than alcohol; but illegal drugs also do less damage to the body. And while illegal drugs generally make people boring, alcohol often makes them violent.

The costs that drugs of all kinds impose on those who take them, and on others, are the reason why this newspaper advocates discouragement, as well as legalisation. Young people need educating about the dangers. Government campaigns should rise above public prejudice, and explain that "a few too many" drinks can be at least as destructive as illegal drugs.

The Economist