Politicians can’t do drugs and drink. Pandering to the Daily Mail and the drinks industry means they are irrational about one and evasive about the other. While government policy slips and slides around the price (too low) and social cost (too high) of booze, I am enjoying the memory that I once managed to sneak alcohol into a government funded booklet about drugs.
This is nothing like a wiki-leak, but it does reveal something about the way public health policy can be shaped or distorted by political hamfistedness. Some years ago when NHS Health Scotland still had the more easily recognised name of Health Education Board for Scotland (dear old HEBS), I was hired to write a booklet about drugs for parents of teenage children. A friend was working on a companion booklet about alcohol at the same time.
I always enjoyed working with HEBS and not just because they paid well and on time. But on this occasion, as a parent of teenage children myself, I remember feeling pretty uncomfortable about the thinly disguised propaganda of the presentation. The timing was significant. We were within months of a Scottish Parliamentary election and the then Health Minister (I honestly forget his name but it certainly wasn’t Malcolm Chisholm) clearly wanted to make parents feel the government was taking care of them (even if it meant making them more scared about drugs than they needed to be).
My friend and I wanted to take a more evenly balanced and objective approach. I argued that we should be concentrating more on alcohol. The statistics backed me up. Besides I had fresh in my mind a conversation with the then Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders Police. Sitting next to him at a corporate dinner (I was no doubt clutching a glass of wine) I heard him tell a story about the increasing problem of underage drinking. Late at night one of his police cars had taken a young boy home unable to walk or talk.
“The parents asked what was wrong and when the police officer said it was drink they said ‘oh thank goodness for that, we were afraid it was drugs’”.
When the drugs booklet was published I remember noticing that some discreet editing had been applied to a section on First Aid which (to my mind) added an unnecessary frisson of fear.
However I had scored a victory. At my suggestion, the centre spread of the booklet – possibly the only part that young people would read anyway – was a factual A-Z of drugs and their effects. It began with alcohol.
PS Earlier this year I was delighted to discover NHS Health Scotland has reprinted that booklet, almost unchanged. The statistics on drug use are more encouraging than they were in the first edition. Cannabis, of course, has been upgraded again. But the A-Z still begins with alcohol.