Today the Barron’s report on how to tackle the UK’s drinking problem (which one?) was released with much media fanfare. Kevin Barron (the Chair of the Health select committee) proposes in this report two main policy idea’s on how to tackle “Booze Britain”. Idea Number One, he suggests a minimum charge of a 50p per unit of alcohol. Idea Number 2, he suggests a reversal of the 24 hour licensing that came into effect in 2003.
Firstly, let’s get it on the record, that I, steve4319 think that Britain has a serious alcohol problem. We can see hundreds of drink drive related deaths per year, billions of pounds spent annually by the NHS on alcohol related illnesses and this is without mentioning the personal horror stories that many have witnessed from alcohol abuse and dependency (note they are two separate things but are often confused). Something has to be done. Yet, this piece of social policy seems about as sensible as downing a tequila slammer just after “bottle rocketing” some stellar (believe me it doesn’t end well).
Let’s take the proposed 50p minimum charge for a unit of alcohol. This would mean that you could still get 1 pound pints, 50p shots of vodka and (if so wished) a 50p shot put into the top of a pint of larger (yes this is common practice in Weatherspoons up and down the country). Essentially, it would not tackle those slightly disgusting scenes of fully grown men vomiting on each other’s shoes in the early hours in town centers. It would not stop the cat fights that break out between inebriated girls. Most importantly, it would not put a dent in the business plan of J.D Weatherspoons of “buy cheap, sell cheap”.
What it would do is hit the supermarket drunks. It would hit those who buy bottles of wine (it would mean each bottle would be at least 4-5 pounds), those who buy crates of beer (your looking about 24 quid a case) and the bottles of spirits (for a 70 cl bottle expect to pay at least 14 pounds) – assuming I have done my math’s right! When I use the phrase supermarket drunks, you imagine a homeless guy with a can of special brew…think again. The supermarkets are being hit by a respectable wave of middle classes consuming incredible amounts of alcohol. It is a hidden face of alcohol abuse in the UK. Your doctor, your teacher and the nice man in the bank are probably going home every other evening and consuming a bottle of wine (each). OK, they do not end up urinating on war memorials but they are still doing serious damage to themselves.
So, I hear you cry…surely if this 50p a unit idea helps tackle this, it must be a good idea. I will explain why it is not on two levels. Firstly, this catch all policy disadvantages the majority to help the minority. As a rule of thumb that is not a good piece of social policy. It depends though, how much it disadvantages some in relation to helping others. In this case, due to the middle class nature of those it intends to help, it would not significantly help those it is aimed at. On the other-hand, it will hit the poorest section of our society that spends literally a few pounds a week on alcohol. It will not affect all you who appreciate a good 2001 Rioja, but it will affect those who appreciate the 2.99 specials!
Secondly, I wish to question whether it is up to the state to moderate self-harming practices (which is different to public issues such as town centers on Friday nights). Most ordinary people would not advocate complete prohibition (enjoy it in moderation blah blah), but feel as though alcohol can, and should be enjoyed in moderation. In a free society should this balance not be left to the individual to reach? While 3 pints of beer is considered (including by Her Majesty’s government) to be “binge drinking”, I would personally consider it a good night down the pub! On the other-hand we can see that 3 pints would leave some people on the floor. I think that alcohol consumption should be like other aspects of adult life where we learn (through experience and advice) how to live as functioning people. In the past I have drunk too much too often, now I only occasionally drink too much – job done. This however, has to be accompanied by sufficient support mechanisms (provided by the state) to help those in need with serious problems (that represent the minority). This idea of the state trying to force people to drink less through economic sanctions is surely mislead.
There is then the issue of the reversing of the 24 hour licensing law! I still feel that one of the main problems with drinking is the associated problems (the vomiting on each other’s shoes scenario, the street fights etc). The staging of club dispensing is a good thing in terms of public order. There is nothing more terrifying than looking down a high street (sober enough to remember it) at 2-3 AM on a Saturday morning. It makes the police lives easier if they can focus on a hand-full of establishments at a time. Equally, the strict licensing times do not tackle the core of the problem, why people are drinking themselves unconscious every Friday and Saturday night (and causing all the health implications).
The idea of not being thrown out of a pub at 11 is a great idea. We no longer live in an era when we have our supper at 6:30 and are in bed by 11. I think by opening later, the bars and clubs are simply reflecting this. To suggest that by limiting the amount of time people have to drink that they will drink less is ludicrous. We can see the real problems starting when people are restricted in the amount of time they have to drink (the “downing culture”). Indeed, we can see through examples across Europe, that it is not the opening hours that are the issue; it’s the “way” we drink.
I am not pretending to hold a solution to this one. Our drinking culture is a complex one. I will however, state that I can see alcohol as part of a functioning society. The idea of going down the pub with your mates is a healthy one that should be supported. We have been enjoying a good tipple for centuries. I do not want to see this being disadvantaged because of an over-zealous government trying (but failing) to help the minority. Here are some initial observations that might highlight why we have such a problem in this country…feel free to add any I have missed:
• The round system – our stingy nature means that if you buy one drink, you basically commit yourself to four (or five or six) to get your “money’s worth”. Also, the rounds get purchased at the rate of the fastest drinker. Due to the Brits inability just to chat, we have to have a distraction (a drink to slurp). The moment your glass is empty you have to utter those magic words “another drink anyone”. If you say no – you lose!
• The pint culture – by the very nature of drinking 568 ml of beer in a sitting (compared to the 250 or 330 norms in most of Europe).
• The 7:30 culture – we start a lot earlier than most of Europe, and now we no longer stop much earlier. We are effectively drinking for 7-10 hours often!
• The strange green thing on the top shelf moment – thanks to advertising and a serious commitment to getting off our faces we regularly think it is a good thing to buy a “round” of those bright green things that taste like a strange mixture of toothpaste and apples.
The Brits are famous for it…we always have been. But how do we try and enjoy it rather than abuse it?