Last Orders: When are we drinking too much?

There is a welter of evidence (documented, filmed, anecdotal, piling up in police records) that the main victims of 'binge-drinking', apparently exacerbated by cheap supermarket booze - at 22p a can, Stella Artois is now famous for being reassuringly cheap - and 24-hour licences, are the city-centre young. A few weeks ago, however, Dawn Primarolo, our public health minister, said, on the record: 'The particular [problem] age range is middle-aged, middle-class drinkers drinking at home. That is where the serious and dramatic harm is increasing.'

As a clumsy piece of goading which seemed designed to raise the prickliest hackles of Middle England, it could hardly have been bettered. Might as well ban lawns, or gossip, or kindness, or snobbery. You didn't need to read the columns in the papers, though there were enough of them; you could have heard the muttering from 10m teatime households; the slow chink of ice melting in glasses, forgotten on the sideboard, as righteous anger kicked in. Us? The problem is us?

That the public health minister should seek to better public health is surely not a bad thing. But there is both a problem and a panic about drinking in Britain, and these, while related, are in fact two different entities.

There has, indeed, been a leap in reports of cirrhosis over the lifetime of this government, although, as ever, one has to take into account the fact that reporting procedures have also changed. Some cities, since 24-hour drinking was introduced, with the stated aim - ha! - of introducing a 'continental-style cafe culture' to Britain, have seen an (excuse the pun) staggering rise in young people out on the lash, drinking illegally and cheaply, failing to hold it.

At the same time, another story was being told. A number of police forces, including Merseyside, have reported overall drops in drink-fuelled violence since 24-hour drinking. Most crucially, it emerged a few weeks ago that the Department of Health 'safe drinking' recommendations - 21 units of alcohol a week for men, 14 for women - were, in fact, 'just plucked out of the air', according to Richard Smith, one of the Royal College of Physicians team involved, more than 20 years ago, in drawing up those guidelines.

But never mind the complex, often contradictory, facts. The history of reporting of the effects of drink in Britain has always been muddied by exactly who's doing the reporting, and by politics: lobbying groups - either for the drinks industry or for the health/moral re-educators - have always been able to find statistics to back up their side, and governments have sometimes had a tricky job aligning their instincts with the huge duty levied on booze.

This time, this autumn, it all coincided with a media panic. 'Binge drinking' had been coined, which would seem to mean, most simply, drinking too much, too quickly, when young. So what's new? Photographers flocked to see the likes of Amy Winehouse fall over again. There was a flourishing of documentaries showing teens vomiting blue alcopops. Something, the government decided, as it does when media panics arise, had to be done.

There was talk of higher drinks taxes, for all. 'Taxing adult drinkers to stop children breaking the law is illogical,' according to the Portman Group - and even though they are a lobby group for the drinks industry, they do have a strong point. And then, instead of addressing the more complex arguments, Ms Primarolo chose to blame the middle classes, to suggest addiction. It's not as if she is the first politician to attempt to control the nation's drinking; far from it. But even Gladstone, whose government supported hard laws and tended towards outright prohibition, told Parliament: 'How can I, who drink bitter beer every day of my life, coolly stand up and advise hard-working fellow creatures to take the pledge?'

The great danger, surely, is that by telling everyone they drink too much (when, as we have seen, we have been following spurious guidelines for decades) we are left bereft of proper guidance. The tactics leave us more confused than ever. When are we drinking too much? Should I feel guilty? What's wrong with a couple of glasses? Am I an alcoholic? Is there a difference? Oh yes. Yes, there is still a difference, between those who enjoy a drink and those who tip into hell. Our studies today show the difference, and it is, I would argue, supremely irresponsible for a government minister to attempt to blur the scare-lines.

Of course, it acts for all as a carrot. In almost the same way as factory workers in the Twenties and Thirties would anticipate the hooter and the first rewarding pint of wallop, today's office millions anticipate the quick couple after work, or the slow two glasses with pasta at home: it is, simply, something to look forward to.

I don't think this makes them alcoholics; I know it doesn't. The difference is this: the alcoholic, even the borderline alcoholic, will behave quite differently if the carrot's not there. If my parents found there was just a trickle left in the bottle for their usual 'five o'clock' - small whiskies with water, in the living room, before the news, and supper, and then most likely nothing more the rest of the evening - I don't think they'd be leaping out to the off-licence. If your average social drinker in your average British city found the usual places were shut after work, the group would disperse. That's the difference. It's nice, it's sometimes very nice, but it's not, always, necessary.

The alcoholic sees things differently. Consciously or not, he or she begins to look forward to that carrot as the high point of the day: often in a good way, to celebrate work well done, or grand ideas had, or victories won. But you start to look forward to it as a right, not a reward. You will be the one, that bank holiday Monday, urging the team half a mile round the corner, where there's an admittedly horrid Wetherspoon's, but at least it'll be open. You begin to resent evenings which are planned wrongly. Theatre, fine; film, lovely: but why on earth are we going to that one, it's miles away and there's nothing nearby, there's no time for a quick one before and by the time we're out it'll be too late. The alcoholic doesn't want, on nights like this, to get trolleyed, far from it; but he or she wants to know there will be a drink at some point.

This is a quite different thing from (even if regularly) wanting, or thinking you might quite like, or being able to do with a drink. Want to know if you're an alcoholic? Don't listen to the government. Listen to your mornings. You'll know you have something to worry about when you find yourself, in what is becoming the usual phrase, 'sick and tired of feeling sick and tired'. If you are lucky, you'll do something in time. Something which works.

For me, it was a course of Antabuse, one pill a morning which means you can't drink without risking severe sickness for the next 48 hours. The two-day aspect was good: if you want to have a drink, you've really got to plan ahead, and thus properly know in advance you're going to let yourself down. A day passes, you get through the night, and feel so good the next morning that the urge, too, will have passed. What kept me going, kept me off, was the discovery that mornings could be a different country.

But that's just for me. Alcoholism can creep up on people in different ways - avoiding stress, too much socialising, too much boredom, quiet perennial guilt, a simple damned taste for the stuff or (in my case) the simple but tragic discovery that the only thing that could take the edge off a debilitating hangover was a lunchtime pint: nothing strong, nothing too much, but always there to help and, of course, soon just always there.

Similarly, individuals who realise they must take action (and no, there doesn't need to be a 'bottoming out' of misery or misbehaviour; some epiphanies have come on a happy sunny Wednesday) cope differently: some I know have gone cold-turkey through sheer willpower, others either take Antabuse or keep it at the back of the cupboard (it's a great way, if you do take a drink, to resist the slide the next morning: within the 48 hours the alcohol will have fled your body and you'll be back and happy and in control. That's the idea.) Others, a good few, swear by AA and other support groups. And these people - old friends in the same situation spring up when they hear you've stopped drinking - are relentlessly middle-class: lawyers, journalists, film producers. They were also the epitome of those who had managed, in happier times, to cope absolutely with 'social drinking'. But something went.

Doctors and addiction counsellors talk about a 'switch'. Most non-alcoholics retain one: they can stop. With hangovers, the last instinct is to have a drink. Alcoholics have simply lost the switch, had it broken: with hangovers, the first instinct is to drink. (With some reforming alcoholics, the switch can, as it were, grow back: they can learn to drink sometimes socially, and control it. Most, sadly, can't.) But it is a switch, definitely, a lost switch, and the loss changes your life. And, given that alcoholism is such a complex and debilitating disease, I find it increasingly hard to believe as I write this that a minister is playing around so lightly with its mention and, by implication, its definition.

For me, the most telling point in these accompanying case studies was made by Fergus Henderson: listen to your body. You'll know.

You'll know, socially, too. No matter how easily you are able to hide it - and we alcoholics, and the recoverers, are the best liars on God's green earth - you know, somewhere, that there was, once, a nicer and more controlled bit inside you. The bit which would have been quite happy to shrug it off when the last chum leaves, off to see the girl- or boyfriend, at a quarter to seven; you would drain the last sip and join them, moaning about the rain, on the way to the bus. Even if your life held little that night - Con Air or some such on at nine, and a couple of phone calls on the way home to catch up, and a takeaway or quick trip to Waitrose, and then maybe even a glass of wine or a can of beer while you watch and eat.

At some stage, however, it becomes subtly, horribly, different. Brilliantly different sometimes. Suddenly, at the point when friends announce they're going, the rain seems too... rainy. You remember you've seen Con Air before. You can always get wet, or see an old movie, but tonight... well, there's the magic. The magic of thinking things, in your own brain, in quiet forgotten corner bars, maybe even writing things down in a notebook, and all you need is a £20 note in the pocket, maybe a good crime paperback, and a rough folk-knowledge of the other pubs in the area (because, if you're off for a couple on your own, you don't want to stay in the same place where you just had real conversations with real friends. You have your new friend, your other self, and he's waiting behind every bar in the world).

Even if you are utterly loved up, you will quietly and charmingly - my goodness but we drunks can do charm, even better than the lies - try to persuade. Sorry dear heart I know I was meant to be back but the thing is... Hell of a day... look, why don't I buy you a late... Yes, yes, perfect. Angel. See you there.

And you are - by which I mean I was - already, even while talking, sifting through memory to recall the nearest old boozer to the pizza place. Just for a quick something to calm down before I see her.

The awful thing is, it works. With practice, you're fine. Charming. Loving. Winning. The night goes swimmingly. The next morning, you have a choice. No matter how much work you have to do, how much in or out of love you are, how successful or rich, or poor or miserable, or how surrounded or even swamped by friends or family, how genuinely adored and cared for; how panicked, how busy, how unwashed, how guilty, how newly showered, how capable and besuited, or tearful and apologetic, you have a choice to make. The choice. If you are an alcoholic, your mind is still thinking of the first drink of the day, even if it's going to be some party at 10.30 at night. Even one glass of poor bubbly at 10.30 at night. If you're not an alcoholic, you're not thinking of it, not at that time. The author James Lee Burke once described it to me as 'snakes in the blood'. Those millions of us - fine, not 'us', millions of you - who are not alcoholics, or recovering, don't have any snakes. It's that simple, and that complex.

Just as alcoholism is such a complex disease, the arguments surrounding 'healthy' drinking are incredibly complex; and the partisanship of those engaging in it means that the statistics can mean exactly what each side wants them to mean. The figures showing rises in hospital admissions can tell one story, as can the anecdotes surrounding city-centre vomitoria. The statistics showing the millions who enjoy a drink without a problem (and, never forget, beget such billions in duty for the Treasury) tell, if you want to argue that way, another. I hope I come, now, from neither partisan side: I know the beauty and solace and social delights of drink, and I know when it has its hands on your windpipe. The arguments, the illogic, the guilt; always, the guilt.

Yes, it's a shame that we don't, in places, have a cafe society. One sociable glass, then into the night. Yes, we do buy rounds (legally again), which adds to woes; it happens far less on the continent. Nobody seems to quite know why we drink differently. The climate is blamed. Historically, we gathered socially in one place, the pub, where it was all there in a big cask, rather than having bottles of wine at various homes. Traditionally, perhaps crucially, we are still not a child-friendly pub society.

So we drink a bit too much, and young people misbehave. Badly. Stupidly. But we should surely be clear on the difference between someone who drinks and an alcoholic. We should get a clear handle on this before we are further scared or, more damagingly, quite refuse to listen because someone has, once again, cried wolf too often. I think we should learn to trust our bodies, and friends, and learn to supremely distrust government slurs. Particularly from someone who was able to say, in that same statement, without the benefit of (presumably) drink or (assuredly) grammar, that her department was already 'progressing research'. I don't know about you, but I find myself reading things like that and thinking, simply, that I may need a drink.

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