Mark Smith: Do not deprive me of my early morning pint of beer

I was sipping a beer at 8am the other day when I read in the paper that a public health advisor wants to ban early-morning drinking at airports. I was not surprised. Indeed, I knew this kind of thing would happen. I knew that the restrictions introduced when the pandemic began would probably encourage more of the same kind of restrictions when the pandemic was over.

The public health expert in question was Linda de Caestecker, Glasgow’s director of public health, who said greater restrictions on bar opening times at airports were needed to avoid what she called the culture of “normalising drinking for every social occasion”. Alison Douglas of Alcohol Focus Scotland also said the closure of many airport bars during the pandemic was a chance to rethink what we want to experience when we travel.

One of the apparent justifications for the proposed ban appeared to be passenger safety. Ms Douglas said that before the pandemic, concerns were regularly raised about safety and disruption due to people drinking too much in airports, and continuing to drink on the plane. The answer, she said, was to bring airport alcohol sales into the licensing system to prevent harm and make travel safer and more enjoyable for everyone.

But I’m afraid that, well-intentioned as the advisors may be, they are ignoring one of the important rules of public policy which is that any law/rule/ban/whatever should be in proportion to the problem/issue/nuisance it seeks to control. For example, viruses wouldn’t spread if we were made to stay in our homes at all times forevermore but that would not be proportionate and so, thankfully, we are moving back to a normal life even though a number of people will still get ill.

The same sort of proportionate response should apply to policy on alcohol. Undoubtedly there are some passengers who let things get out of hand, sometimes fuelled by a breakfast drink, but millions of passengers go through Scotland’s airports every year and the number of incidents is measured in the hundreds. I have to say too that I’ve flown hundreds of times and haven’t once seen a single incident that would give me any cause for concern.

It’s also important to remember here that policy for the majority shouldn’t usually be guided by the behaviour of a small minority. For example, no one sensible is suggesting we should carry on with the pandemic restrictions because a small minority refuse to get vaccinated and the same should apply to alcohol-related health issues: the majority should not be denied a departure drink, even if the departure is in the morning, because a small minority get out of control sometimes.

It seems to me we should be careful as well to avoid a certain kind of snobbishness creeping into public policy in this area. Middle class people think it’s fine to have a gin or three on the plane to Brittany – and it is – but they may also sneer at someone having a lager in the morning before their flight to somewhere less bourgeois. Public policy, however, needs to be based on something more substantial than feelings of middle-class superiority; it needs to be based on fairness and proportionality.

Fortunately for us, the Scottish Government appears to be in no mood – yet – to restrict the rules at airport bars and that may be because they disagree with Linda de Caestecker’s idea of normal. Contrary to what the director of public health for Glasgow says, it is perfectly normal and acceptable in Scotland to drink at social occasions, including when you meet friends at a bar on the day you’re heading off on holiday somewhere nice. What isn’t normal is to suggest that such an activity – which in the vast majority of cases passes off without incident – should be banned.

Perhaps in the end health advisors feel more able to suggest such things because of the pandemic; indeed, Ms Douglas specifically cited the closure of bars during the lockdown as an opportunity to rethink public policy. The point she’s missed though is that the pandemic was a rare event that required rare restrictions. It was extraordinary and most of us, whether we like a drink before we fly off or not, just want to get back to ordinary.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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