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May 10th 2017 print

Satyajeet Marar

The Nanny State’s Enemies of Pleasure

Take a responsible drink, as most of us do, and you will surely have noticed those hectoring, state-mandated posters behind the bar advising that alcohol is a curse. Call it neo-wowserism, this selective puritanism of the modern Left, and brace for yet more laws intended to protect us from ourselves

carrie nation IIIt sometimes feels like our society has long abandoned its sense of individual responsibility. Flick open the papers or scroll through your newsfeed after yet another terrorist incident in Europe and it’s not uncommon to see headlines like ‘vehicle kills three’ or ‘truck attack claims casualties’.  Damn those jihadi jalopies. This is why we need extreme vetting to prevent radicalisation in our parking lots.

Of course, no one would genuinely suggest banning cars or trucks from the roads. That would just be silly. We know it’s the zealot behind the wheel who is responsible, not inanimate vehicles – the same sort of vehicles driven by millions of innocent people worldwide.

And yet this is precisely the attitude our public policy makers apply to alcohol. Phrases like ‘alcohol-fuelled violence’ become a focus, with some attention paid to the second part of the phrase but the major emphasis clearly on the first. We rush to impose ‘lockout law’ zones in Sydney, destroying a once vibrant city’s nightlife in the name of protecting people from themselves.

All the while, countries like those of Europe, with far-more relaxed alcohol and alcohol establishment laws than ours experience lower rates of violence. These are often countries where children share their first drink with their parents at an early age. Never do we stop to think about whether it is our drinking culture, not our drinking itself, that is the problem. Never do we take a more than skin-deep look at what has shaped our drinking culture this way. Were we to do so, we might see a culture that blames its problems on an external substance more than individual responsibility actually normalises the link between drinking and violence – providing an implicit, socially sanctioned excuse for individuals to engage in otherwise anti-social behaviour in the knowledge that their having been drunk at the time of the outrageous behaviour is a convenient excuse.

These are not merely propositions. A report to the European Commission found that alcohol’s effects on behaviour are primarily determined by socio-cultural factors, including culturally determined beliefs about the effects of drinking and not the intoxicant’s chemical effects.

Damningly, Kate Fox, anthropologist with the Social Issues Research Centre, notes that cultures like those of Latin America and the Mediterranean, where people tend to hold positive beliefs and expectancies about alcohol, do not deal with nearly the same levels of alcohol-related anti-social behaviour as countries like the US, UK, Australia or those of Scandinavia, where public discourse focuses primarily on alcohol’s negative effects and where alcohol is often seen as a license to engage in behaviours the individual might otherwise avoid — violence, promiscuity, aggression or other reckless, “out of character” or seemingly impulsive acts. “This variation cannot be attributed to different levels of consumption – most integrated drinking cultures have significantly higher per-capita alcohol consumption than the ambivalent drinking cultures,” she writes. “Instead, the variation is clearly related to different cultural beliefs about alcohol, different expectations about the effects of alcohol, and different social rules about drunken comportment.”

These findings are confirmed by a 2008 report from the International Center for Alcohol Policies which found that the ‘license to transgress’ pervading our culture means that drinkers are ‘expected’ to alter their behaviour – engaging in varying degrees of conduct that is otherwise under relatively strict social constraint. Not only do these cultural expectations influence drunken behaviour, they also allow culprits to excuse their own behaviour through subsequent rationalisation and justification that they were ‘different people’ divorced from their own actions under the influence of alcohol.

The latest in a string of hair-brained ideas is a call for ‘plain packaging’ laws to be applied to alcohol as a way to discourage  abuse while highlighting alcohol’s promoted link to ill health, much as tobacco now comes wrapped in graphic imagery.

Never mind that graphic imagery only dumbs down a complex problem by ignoring the multitude of factors that are actually key to an individual succumbing to cancer or other illnesses. These include genetics and family history, environmental factors, and behavioural variables, as well as social factors and consumption levels far outside the normal range.

Never mind that leading economists have found that household levels of tobacco consumption have actually risen since plain packaging of tobacco products was introduced in Australia – when statistics are adjusted for external factors such as price effects and an existing long-term downward trend in smoking levels over the last six decades.

Interestingly and worryingly, the tobacco plain packaging laws have been linked to a spike in market share for cheaper ‘low cost’ cigarettes, with the trend confirmed by industry monitor InfoView, which found a rise in the market share of cheaper cigarettes from 32 per cent to 37 per cent in 2011 following the introduction of the plain packaging laws.

This highlights a deep flaw in the reasoning of plain packaging advocates – that a decline in household ‘expenditure’ as opposed to ‘consumption’ cannot be hailed as evidence for the policy’s success. This is because the removal of unique branding allowing for product differentiation and marketing only means that cheaper versions of the product become more attractive to consumers, actually connoting increased consumption for the same monetary expenditure.

Apply these principles to alcohol consumption and it’s easy to see how plain packaging could actually encourage immoderate and irresponsible drinking as well as a greater focus on alcohol as a generic intoxicant rather than a range of products associated with varying degrees of enjoyment due to differences in taste, texture and brand image – forms of enjoyment that do not incite immoderate or irresponsible behaviour.

What’s more, this type of change to market and consumer demand actually incentivises the production of more cheap alcohol, with smaller brewers and other small or medium alcohol manufacturers encouraged to shift resources into boosting their economies of scale to get their customers as wasted as possible on as low a price tag as possible, given that they will no longer need to be concerned with long-term investment in building a unique brand image. Rather, price will become one of the only meaningful ways for companies and products to distinguish themselves and attract consumers.

The final kicker to all this? The claim that household expenditure on tobacco has fallen after plain packaging was introduced has also been exposed as patently false even when the government’s own ABS data is used, as noted by leading economist Professor Sinclar Davidson of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

The failed plain packaging experiment was most recently co-opted by France which had to pay tobacco companies over 100 million euros as compensation for branded products that could no longer be sold when their new law was introduced. For all their effort and money, they were only rewarded with irony as French smokers responded by purchasing and consuming more tobacco this year.

It’s abundantly clear that moves to punish or discourage substance consumption through laws such as plain packaging, lockout laws and “sin taxes” are often ineffective. It’s also clear that they can often backfire and have the opposite of the intended effect. As such, they are the wrong answer.

But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t a quick or easy answer. Like a band-aid applied to a fracture, they offer politicians and policymakers the opportunity to appear tough on complex social issues without doing anything meaningful to address the underlying socio-cultural factors.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can sit tight and watch our freedoms and choice get taken apart.

Satyajeet Marar is a Sydney-based writer and research associate for the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance. He can be followed on Facebook

Comments [33]

  1. Keith Kennelly says:

    Dumb

  2. Keith Kennelly says:

    And dont forget with lower costs comes less profit for wholesalers and retailers thence less gst and business tax as well as less jobs and can also equal fewer hours thence further increases in underemployment and a rise in unemployment thence increased welfare and increased debt and increased interest.

    Yep totally dumb.

  3. pgang says:

    I find it interesting that all ‘vices’ (such as eating) are frowned upon by the new totalitarians, except for sexual promiscuity which seems to be encouraged.

  4. Lacebug says:

    This is all well and good until it touches you personally, and then it may make you think differently about it. As a person who lost both of my parents to smoking related illness at a relatively young age (64 and 71) I would don anything in my power to have smoking totally banned. There is NO safe level of smoking. It is a disgusting product.

    • pgang says:

      I sympathise with the loss of your parents, but your attitude is exactly the kind of grist that totalitarians and the morally vain feed upon. Your parents had a personal choice in front of them, as all smokers do. My mother died young too, from illness. That doesn’t mean we should raise more taxes or create new laws to ‘find a cure’ which would affect the freedom of others.

      • Lacebug says:

        Pgang, so are you fine with legalising heroin and Ice?

        • Rob Brighton says:

          I am. It limits the damage to the user rather than having my old mum knocked on the head for the contents of her purse and it takes the cash out of criminals hands.
          all that money spent catching them and locking them up can be spent on helping those who can be helped and for the others…their choice their life.

        • pgang says:

          I used to be but I doubt that it makes any difference anyway. The dangers of drug addiction need to be taught to people. Making laws against their use probably isn’t much of a deterrent. Clearly people are making their own choices anyway.

        • pgang says:

          Also there is a big difference between the social cost of smoking the odd cigar or smoking cigarettes for a few years compared with an highly destructive ice habit.

    • Doubting Thomas says:

      My own experience differs from yours. My father died at age 66 from a broadly defined “smoking related disease”. But he hadn’t smoked for many years and, like many World War II veterans, he had numerous other war-caused or exacerbated health issues. My mother on the other hand smoked heavily all her adult life and died at age 95, blind, deaf and demented for the last decade. I myself and my siblings have all been heavy smokers for much of our adult lives and have managed to survive well into our 70s despite some issues that non-smoking might have helped or prevented. I agree with pgang that their smoking was your parents’ own mature choice, and I doubt they’d have welcomed your acting – or encouraging others to act – to limit that choice.

  5. Rob Brighton says:

    “Of all the tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be sated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience,”
    C.S Lewis.

    • Lacebug says:

      Rob, you do realise CS Lewis died in a car crash because he refused to wear a seatbelt!

      • Rob Brighton says:

        I didn’t know that and the irony does not escape me although it was his choice wasn’t it? My life, my body, my choice.

      • Rob Brighton says:

        I recall some years ago the hand wringers got excited about alco-pops and put the price up to the point that young ones couldn’t afford them any more.
        My daughter told me at the time that she and her friends just purchased a bottle of whatever poison they wished to enjoy and mixed it themselves.
        She also said that this was becoming a problem because the alco-pops had a defined amount of alcohol and everyone knew they could have X number before they went out and keep control.
        The same could not be said of self mixed drinks, that the strength could and would vary between each glass no control was applied to the total volume.
        So the busybodies in trying to fix underage drinking just moved the problem.

      • pgang says:

        Let’s sort out that comment. First of all, Lewis died because he was in a car which hit something, and the lack of seatbelt may have compounded his injuries. His not wearing a seat belt did not cause the car to crash. It is the cause of the crash which is the main concern in relation to his death.

        He died in the 1960′s when seatbelts were pretty ordinary anyway.

        Maybe he made a bad choice. That’s his prerogative as a free human, created in God’s likeness (as he would have put it). The matter of his death is, in any case, a separate matter to his quoted comment. The point is moot, regardless of the irony, given that we can’t answer the question as to how he might have died otherwise.

        I have a question for you. Where does it end? This is the point Lewis was making. What should we ban next? Here’s a list of suggestions:

        All ball sports, they’re too injurious
        Motorcycles
        Cars
        Bicycles
        Thongs (bad for your feet and generally unsafe)
        Being outside without a hat on
        Any activity that can’t be insured
        Ladders
        Backyard pools

        …..

        • Matthew Arkapaw says:

          I think CS Lewis died at home, of renal failure unrelated to a car accident. ?

        • Doubting Thomas says:

          About seatbelts, my recollection is that few if any cars had seatbelts in the 60s, at least in Australia, although the situation may have been different in the UK. I bought a new Fairmont in late 1973, and had to retrofit the crappy non-retractable belts offered as optional extras. While there is no doubt that seatbelts have saved many lives, I think that it is probably the other modern design and material innovatons that have had the greatest benefit. For me, the main benefit of seatbelts, and the only reason justifying legal compulsion, is that they restrain the driver and assist in control while limiting loose flying objects for the benefit of other passengers.

        • Rob Brighton says:

          Pgang The list is endless, when they finish with what you shouldn’t they will move on to what you should (read must). Proscription or requirement for every minute for every action every day is the logical conclusion.

      • Eddystone says:

        “Rob, you do realise CS Lewis died in a car crash because he refused to wear a seatbelt!”

        That isn’t correct, Lacebug.

        He died of illness, according to the official C S Lewis site.

  6. Keith Kennelly says:

    So, Laceberg

    the moral crusaders will probably die of stress.

  7. Jody says:

    The Nanny State is far worse than moral crusaders. It is precisely because of the Nanny State having infantilised the electorate that we get wholesale bank bashing and finger-wagging that they’re ‘bad’ people. The Nanny State presumes all people are good and if they’re not good government can fix it for you. I don’t recall in my over 65 years on this planet a more pernicious form of social control than that of treating people like children who then capitulate their life judgments to politicians. A smarter, more intelligent and experienced person might say about banks, “caveat emptor”. But nanny wouldn’t be in control if that happened.

  8. Matt says:

    There are some things in the world that virtually nobody can do without, such as cars. But there are plenty of people who get through life very well thankyou very much without alcohol, cigarettes or recreational drugs. Seat belts? Is that Nanny State imposition? Should we all be free to take really dumb risks and expect the rest of society to pick up the tab. I rather suspect that my Medicare levy might be somewhat lower if people were somehow prevented from harming themselves and others through alcohol. If everyone who drank too much and caused harm to themselves and others had to pay ALL costs, medical included, then perhaps I might be a bit more sympathetic to this line of reasoning. But sorry, no, I don’t buy this Nanny State argument. I have to pay the public cost of other people’s stupidity along with everyone else and therefore society reserves the right to try and stop people doing stupid things. The Nanny State argument is an argument for anarchy and promotion of stupidity.

  9. Doubting Thomas says:

    That’s exactly how it goes, or went. People believe they should have the right to control other people’s lawful behaviour because they believe that it is costing them, personally, money for the alleged results of activities that they don’t approve. People of a certain age will recall that before Whitlam introduced Medibank, there were only the private medical and hospital benefit funds to which all sensible people contributed voluntarily, augmented by the system of public patients being treated for no, or very little cost in public hospitals. Part of the rationale for creating Medibank was that there were people who couldn’t afford private coverage. Whether it might have been cheaper for the government to pay the private system’s membership for those people rather than going the “free” Medibank route was never explored to my knowledge, but I suspect that the main attraction for the ALP and the bureaucracy was the usual socialist empire-building instinct.

    But, and it’s a very big BUT, the voluntary assumption by a government of responsibility for medical coverage on behalf of the population, no matter the motivation, does not give the government or individual citizens the moral right to dictate how people should lead their lives provided they live within the laws. Nor does it give governments the automatic moral right to create laws to limit people’s freedom on some pretext such as disapproval of particular lifestyles, eg because the possible, but not inevitable effects of such lifestyles might add to the cost of health care VOLUNTARILY assumed by government for blatant political gain.

    Lacebug’s contempt for the electorate is precisely what brought Trump to power in the US.

    • Lacebug says:

      Doubting Thomas. My contempt for the electorate is based on 53 years of life. As the old saying goes: You know how stupid the average person is? Well 50 per cent of people are even stupider than that.
      I am that rare breed: A right-wing elitist.

      • Doubting Thomas says:

        If you think that intelligence as measured by IQ tests is a measure of stupidity, you haven’t learnt a lot in your 53 years. Some of the stupidest people on this earth have genius level IQs. The universities are full of them. Stupid is as stupid does as they say in the classics.