Saturday 24 March 2012

How to curb binge-drinking...

There have been discussions about the minimum pricing of alcohol for years in the UK. In 2010, the Scottish government brought forward legislation but it didn’t find a majority in the Scottish Parliament. Alex Salmond’s administration has recently resuscitated it and this time it may get on the statute book in Scotland. 
While the Westminster government (which legislates for England and Wales in this area) has been reluctant to stride into this field of social engineering, yesterday it proposed legislation to the effect of forcing retailers to price every unit of alcohol at 40 pence or more. 
The government says that it has been persuaded by a close examination of the harm and the social costs that binge drinking causes in the UK. However not even the coalition government can deny that minimum pricing of alcohol is a measure targeted at preventing poor people from drinking. The reason is simple: at 40 pence per unit of alcohol, no up market drinks which are usually consumed by middle class people such as wine and expensive spirits are affected. Retailers would only be obligated to increase the price of alcohol in the lowest category of prices, which are traditionally cider and cheap beer. Many of those come as ‘special offers’ in six packs or larger.
While the argument about harm reduction is widely accepted, there are serious flaws with this proposal. One is of course that it targets a particular population group, which smacks of a revival of patronising ‘temperance’ ideas. 
The temperance movement was animated by the belief that alcoholism is a problem of the poor, which has always run counter to any evidence. Consumption of wine amongst the well-off contributes to significant health risks and NHS costs every year as previous campaigns of the government targeting this group testify. 
But there are other questionable assumptions that inspire this legislation. An important aspect seems to be that governments and scientists are not agreed on the causes of drunken behaviour. If, as often claimed, it is the amount of alcohol consumed then the evidence is contradictory. On average Germans consume more alcohol than Brits but German cities are not (generally) blighted by the sort of conduct we see in British city centres every weekend. So if it is not the amount of alcohol consumed that causes this problem, what is it? 
There is one observation that is often made by foreigners in Britain which may be a clue. People coming to the UK and enter a pub often note that punters in this country have to stand when drinking. I don’t remember a single pub in Berlin in which people would stand. 
Drinking alcohol while standing has several effects. First, it pressures people to drink up quick. But second it fosters an atmosphere of restlessness as the alcohol rushes into the blood stream. Forcing pubs to provide seating for every customer may sound like a small step but may be far more effective to enforce civility in the UK’s drinking culture than to ‘force’ the drinks industry to make more profit, which incidentally this new legislation does. 
In this context, it may come as no surprise that any increase in the price of alcohol has another beneficiary: the treasury which will gain through increased duty. Changing the drinking culture by forcing pubs to provide sufficient space for seats may be difficult, asking it to raise prices to make more money may just be the fortunate confluence of interests policy makers have been looking for in this area. Yet as so often, the easy things is not the necessarily the best thing to do. So if the government will get this legislation through binge drinking will remain a deplorable feature of British inner cities. I bet you a guinness!

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