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The International Writers Magazine
:Lifestyles: Excess

James Skinner retraces his steps

Back in the late forties and early fifties, Britain was still suffering from rationing brought on by WWII. You were only allowed a certain amount of liquor and tobacco per person per week. Petrol (gasoline in the US) was also hard to get let alone trying to buy one of the few available cars that were around and that could hardly muster up 60 mph anyway.

It was fairly common therefore that the majority of people in the United Kingdom could hardly afford to either smoke to death or drink and drive causing possible damage to themselves or other fellow citizens. The Marshall plan instituted by the United States that injected billions of dollars for the reconstruction of Europe after the war changed all that.

As Europe moved on from the fifties and into the sixties affluence began to grow. Apart from the restoration of destroyed cities and industry, the plan included the rebuilding of dilapidated and outdated infrastructure, such as railways, roads and seaways, the latter in the form of upgrading of all port areas. Another phenomena were the growth of a new industry relatively unknown to the working masses of the British Isles. Europe opened its doors to tourism.

Slowly, but surely, the Brits began to venture across the Channel to ‘The Continent’, this time without guns but with screaming children and thermos flasks full of tea. As they now had sufficient income to buy a small car and bored with digging up the garden eleven months of the year, their new holiday adventure was to take a ferry boat from Dover across to Calais or Bologne, France. Who knows what they could find on the other side! The Automobile Associations at the time seriously recommended to ‘beware of the water’ and take a proper kerosene primus stove to heat the same before drinking. They also suggested placing meshing across the radiator because of mosquitoes and carry an abundant supply of bread because the French equivalent was unsuitable for cucumber sandwiches! I’m not kidding! (It still isn’t) Ed

As time went by, rationing came to an end, but purchase tax took over. The price of cigarettes and booze was prohibitive. You could not smoke yourself to death nor bash a few pedestrians whilst driving under the influence because you could just not afford it. But the good old Europeans invented the system of ‘Duty Free’ when you went on holiday abroad. So there you had the Joneses, Smiths, Roberts and others going straight to the bar on the Ferry to tank up on pints of beer and dozens of packets of cigarettes before arriving on the other side. The French drive on the wrong side of the road, so our dear British holidaymakers, despite being tanked up, was cautious anyway, as they ventured forth into the French countryside. Probably doing 30 mph just in case.
But then came lunchtime.
Either they stopped off at the next restaurant around noon, or they drove off a side road for a picnic lunch. Being in France, the meal had to be accompanied by a bottle of Beaujolais or Cabernet Sauvignon and followed by an after lunch coffee and a brandy. But as time went by our British tourist became even more adventurous. He made his way towards Spain. Generalissimo Franco, that smarty-pants Dictator knew his onions all right! In the very early sixties he appointed a new Ministry of Tourism as he sniffed the potential of Europeans coming down to the sunny coasts of the Mediterranean and enjoying what was a real cheap holiday. He made sure that more and more would turn up as years went by. He was right. Another factor that helped Spain and tantalised our British tourist was that not only was alcohol very cheap, specially wine and Cognac but that some restaurants offered wine for free and the bars did not conform to any licensing laws thus avoiding closing times.

But what about the dangers of smoking and the drinking and driving? The problem was not even identified.
Commuting in the UK, or going to the local pub for a pint was entering a ‘lung cancer’ trap. Railway carriages were impregnated with tobacco stench and bars looked as if they were fog bound. Getting behind the wheel or jumping on a motorcycle with two or three pints of bitter in your belly after a night out was very common. The added problem was that it continued to grow, not only due to post war relaxation and tourism but also thanks to a growing economic European boom.

By the time the seventies arrived, Europeans had more purchasing power. New roads and motorways were built and the automobile, that four wheeled monster grew in size, speed and power whilst the beast’s price came down and down relative to average income. The European car industry grew exponentially. Hire purchase was introduced in the sixties- thus allowing the lower level income earners to join the bandwagon of the rich and wealthy. More people were smoking, drinking and driving and being merry like never before!
One day, someone, somewhere discovered that smoking was bad for your health and that driving a vehicle with alcohol in your blood impaired your reactions and could cause an accident. As the saying in Spanish goes, ‘they discovered America!’

If I am not mistaken it was the United Kingdom that first introduced the ‘Drink and Drive’ law, whilst the United States came down hard on smoking habits. Thus the infamous breathalyser was invented. Laws on smoking, especially in public places took a while longer to materialize.

Nevertheless, Europeans continued on an upward trend in smoking habits and took risks in drinking and driving whilst having a night out. On a parallel front, governments and other institutions began to produce statistics. The death toll due to both habits were alarming. Their next battle was a proper publicity campaign against the evils. Media and direct advertising entered every household. The latest editions enter into the gory images of cancerous infected organs or mutilated bodies on the tarmac. Although inconclusive, the results seem to show little effect of any significant reduction. The European administrations therefore, have reverted to their one and only last resort.

Enter the law

Backed by the European Union, slowly, but surely ,the member states are beginning, similar to the United States to ban smoking in public places. Be it the workplace, a shopping mall, an airport or even a restaurant and bar, you will not be allowed to light up a ‘cancer stick’ in public. As for the drink and drive, whilst the European police are increasingly on the look out with their inhaler bags for drunken culprits, within a short period of time a new system of driving infringement points on your license is being introduced. If you are stupid enough whilst driving to even sniff at a bottle of hooch in the future you are liable to be shackled and thrown in jail for life!

Are both laws having any effect?
My local tobacconist where I buy my Cuban cigars says he has not noticed any drop in sales. As for drinking and driving, my corner restaurant is always full in the evening and most tables have an uncorked bottle of wine shared amongst the eating party, or a coffee and a brandy whilst the customer is lighting up his cigar. Usually me!
It might take a while yet….
© James Skinner. December, 2004.

See also Greenpeace on the Ocean

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