Alcohol is in the news fairly regularly. It is both the most widely used and most problematic of all the substances that we use. The thing about alcohol that sets it apart is that there is not only a safe level, but also arguably there is a level of consumption with health benefits. Modest consumption of red wine is good for the heart. Used correctly it is a social lubricant and a pleasure to enjoy. However, the problems caused by misuse of alcohol dwarf that of tobacco and all illicit drugs combined.

The problems caused by misuse and overuse of alcohol affect not only the individual through diseases including liver failure, dementia and some cancers but also others. This includes family and friends who may be subjected to violence or abuse. It also can affect total strangers if people drive under the influence of alcohol or are involved in violence in say hotels or nightclubs. Ultimately many deaths are directly attributable to the misuse of alcohol.

Now here is the thing. Alcohol itself is “inert”. In other words it is not the alcohol that is the problem. It is how people choose to use it. To use an example a knife is inert. It can be used to cut your food or it can be used to stab a person. The knife is the same. What is different is how it is used. In the same way that I have previously written about smoking as a choice, so too is alcohol use. The notion of the helpless addict is not correct and worse than that this thinking reinforces the idea that people are not able to change their behavior.

The latest call in Australia is to lift the drinking age to 21 from the current 18. There is a fundamental flaw in this thinking, which is that young people will not drink alcohol if they are under age. They already do. Lifting the legal age will not change this. Worse still it just criminalizes behavior clogging up police resources, and courts, which have better things to do.

What is needed is to teach young people about the proper use of alcohol. In this regard European cultures like the French and Italians do much better than Anglo Saxon cultures. Alcohol is seen as part of social occasions and the young are introduced to small quantities. They observe their elders enjoying a social use of wine, mainly, with meals. The way children learn most is through copying adults. This can be for better or worse.

Simply banning use has not and never has worked. Prohibition in the 1920s did not result in people not drinking. It resulted in profits for criminals. Telling people aged 18 that they can fight in wars and can vote but can not drink alcohol is ridiculous. More to the point it will not solve the issue of problem drinking as those who want to drink will do so anyway. It also assumes that it is just young people who misuse alcohol-and it is not.

We teach our children many things including how to use knives responsibly. We do not ban them from using knives till a legally set age. We let them ease into use at the age appropriate for the child. We guide them carefully until they can manage by themselves.If we want to reduce alcohol miss-use in our young people we need to teach them responsible use via the same principle as we teach them to use knives.

This, in reality, means setting a good example.

Do as I say, not as I do, will not cut it.