Tuesday 17 March 2009

First as Farce, Second as Tragedy.

I can already hear your cries of outrage at my misquoting Marx, so let us move on to a slightly more influential Victorian philosopher.

'When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.'

Humpty Dumpty made this announcement, so Lewis Carroll records, in a rather scornful tone, and although I have only seen it print, rather than heard him speak, I would suspect that Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, used a similarly scornful tone when he came up with a phrase that meant just what he chose it to mean when he raised the spectre of 'passive drinking'.

It's a chilling phrase, and we all know enough about passive smoking to realize that the vaporous fumes that invade our nostrils, our lungs, our very beings are just as insidious if they are effervescing their way out of Auntie Edna's milk stout as they ever were wafting across the room from the tip of her Capstan Full Strength.

But, hang on a second – what do these terms really mean?

Passive Smoking (from Wikipedia, pending the Chief Medical Officer's anonymous edit):

'Passive smoking is the involuntary inhalation of smoke, called second-hand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke, from tobacco products. It occurs when tobacco smoke permeates any environment, causing its inhalation by people within that environment. Scientific evidence shows that exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke causes disease, disability, and death.'

Passive Drinking (from Liam Donaldson himself):

'England has a drink problem and the whole of society bears the burden. The quality of life of families and in cities and towns up and down the country is being eroded by the effects of excessive drinking.'

It may well be a problem, but it's not really quite the same as passive smoking, except in terms of the structure of the phrase, which is all that Donaldson is concerned with, being nowadays more of a politician than a doctor. On the upside, it does open a new vista of similar phrases. A pedestrian knocked down by a car becomes a victim of 'passive driving'; when you step in something nasty on the pavement, it turns out that you are actually indulging in 'passive dog-walking'. These are both genuine problems, but they don't need silly new phrases to describe them.

Now I have to declare an interest here, being a member of that sadly neglected subgroup in society, the well-heeled functional alcoholic, and as such I have some sympathy with Liam Donaldson's proposals for a minimum alcohol price of fifty pence per unit. It's unlikely to have an impact on the price of any but the rankest of clarets, and might actually do something to shorten the queue in Threshers at 10.55 of a Friday evening. While the Conservatives may argue that it is unfair for us all to bear the costs of an irresponsible few, the fact is that we do so anyway through the cost to the NHS in dealing with alcohol related diseases. While I can see some value in the Tories implicit case that the NHS should not treat self-inflicted ailments, I suspect I would one day find myself hoist on my own petard if I supported it.

But whatever the merits of the case, it does not deserve this ridiculous abasement of language, particularly from someone whose role is supposed to me as an impartial government advisor. There is no such thing as passive drinking. Standing next to me when I'm supping on a pint does not make you less able to drive, more prone to liver disease, less prone to heart disease or more attractive to women. It may mean that you have to give me a lift home, roll me out of the car and nod indulgently when I tell you I love you, but there still not one drop of alcohol in your body. The tragedy is that Liam Donaldson is so close to the government that he imbibed deeply of their propagandist style of talking – a case of passive spinning if ever there was one.

But enough of tragedy, what of farce, to return to my reversal of Karl Marx's observation.

It must be fifteen years or more since I regularly read Viz comic since it's not, as it admitted itself even back then, as funny as it used to be. And I do remember one strip called Modern Parents and one particular episode in which the eponymous parents, their newborn dangling in a pouch around the father's neck, walk past a pub where a man is sitting outside drinking a pint and smoking a cigarette.

In horror, the modern father stubs out the cigarette, complaining of effects of passive smoking on their child. The man apologizes, but then the father notices the pint, picks it up and tips it in the gutter. As the drinker complains, the father utters the phrase which somehow became lodged in Liam Donaldson's mind, to be regurgitated years later.

'Haven't you ever heard of passive drinking?'

It was funny at the time.

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