Alcohol is an issue on which it seems that Labour, Conservative, Liberals and the Scottish Nationalists all agree, to an extent. They have been recently out-machoing each other, proposing evermore draconian regulations. The latest, today, from the Government involve compulsory ID checks for those looking about or under 18 and a ban on irresponsible promotions. The Tories want local authorities to fine pubs, clubs and off-licences which are the source of late-night problems and to put up the tax on “problem drinks”. The Nats want to introduce a minimum price for a unit of alcohol and to ban under-21s from buying alcohol in shops and off-licenses, but still allow them to drink in pubs.
Some of these ideas are fine. Most alcohol retailers are already signed up to a voluntary code on selling and promoting alcohol, and they have either a challenge 21 or challenge 25 ID scheme, which is tougher than the challenge 18 ID scheme that the Government is proposing. They also already ban irresponsible promotions – such as all-you-can-drink for a flat fee, and other promotions encouraging fast or excessive drinking in bars and clubs. What the Government is proposing is to bring the recalcitrant traders into line. Fair enough.
The Tory plans seem to go a step further. But do they? Pubs and clubs which are a source of nuisance can already lose their licences, so why propose fining them when local authorities can close them down? Bars and clubs should be warned, given the chance to turn things round, and if they don’t, then their licences should be taken away. Local authorities already have this power, so wouldn’t it be better to encourage them to use it, rather than just give them yet another power?
And the tax on “problem drinks” is just nonsense. This is one of those policies that looks tough but does nothing. Only about 1% of alcohol sales involves alcopops, and there’s more booze in a large glass of wine or a pint of Stella. Those who load up on booze tend not to do it through alcopos, which are a relatively expensive way to get drunk, but on beer (men) and wine (women).
The Nats’ proposals for a 50p minimum price per unit of alcohol may raise prices at the margins for a handful of drinks bought in supermarkets, but not in pubs and bars, where politicians are focusing their fire. And the revenues from these higher prices will go straight into supermarket tills. Ker-ching! While the notion that a 20-year-old can be married, working (maybe serving in the armed forces), living in his or her own home, voting, paying taxes and yet is not allowed to buy a bottle of wine to have with dinner is plain barmy. Not a vote winner, Mr Salmond.
But in the end, these initiatives aren’t about tackling the very real issue of problem drinking, but about pandering to the chatterati who knock back the sauvignon and merlot and shake their heads over the youth and the oiks who get pissed at the weekend. But it isn’t the youth who are the biggest problem (or victims) of alcohol abuse. Statistically, it’s the middle-aged and post-middle-aged private drinkers, who sit at home drinking on their own. It is long-term drinking that causes health harm, not the odd binge, and these proposed measures do nothing to target this most vulnerable group. That’s because such proposals aren’t designed to tackle the fundamental problems which underly problem drinking, but instead aim to satisfy the desire to find someone to blame (in this case the alcohol industry) and to give it a bit of a kicking.
If legislators want to blame someone, they should consider the following:
- The individuals themselves, who (like me and my friends) consciously decide whether and how much to drink. No-one forces us to: we do it because we want to, and sometimes we drink too much. But it is OUR choice.
- Parents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters and friends, teachers, colleagues and bosses: those we look to for guidance and support
- Local authorities and police, who don’t enforce the plethora of laws and regulations already in force to stop the sale of alcohol to minors and to crack down on problem establishments.
- And how about decades of Government policy and social and economic inequality that leads to such stark differences in consumption between groups of people and region? Relatively poorer northern regions have more per capita alcohol consumption than affluent southern regions; working class men in manual jobs drink more than middle-class white collar men (though only just, now, since wine has caught on), and single people, especially in middle-age or older, who tend to drink at home alone.
Economics, education, opportunity and even unhappiness are all factors when it comes to drinking. If politicians really want to sort out alcohol problems then they should start with inequality and, literally, look closer to home.