Drowning your sorrows has a long history as a strategy for coping with adversity. So after three difficult years of economic turmoil, anxious uncertainty about jobs, homes and money, it might have been expected that we would all have been taking to the bottle. But in fact the opposite has happened: we seem to be drinking less. So what has been going on? And are the problems associated with excess drinking now solved?
This week the British Beer and Pub Association published figures claiming that our consumption of alcohol fell by 6% in 2009, the sharpest year-on-year fall since 1948. It was the fourth year out of five in which levels of drinking had fallen and means that we are now consuming 13% less than we were in 2004.
Or that, at least, is what is claimed. Sceptics will be suspicious of figures produced by any organisation which has a vested interest in reporting what suits it, and the BBPA certainly has an interest in telling the world that the problem of our alleged over-consumption of alcohol is not as great as we thought. The association fears that a zealous government could force up the price of alcohol and so damage its business. And the sceptics point out that the figures, based not on measurement of actual volumes consumed but on statistics provided by HM Revenue and Customs regarding duties paid, may not be quite what they seem.
Nonetheless, the notion that we may have been curbing our drinking habits recently is not implausible. Several explanations could be given for it. In the first place, the very economic climate which might incline us to turn to drink also makes it harder to do so – there isn’t the spare money to pay for it. But it may also be the case that long-running campaigns to warn us all of the dangers of drink are at last having an effect.
Either way, if our appetite for alcohol (which has been rising for sixty years and reached a peak in 2004) is actually on the wane, do we need to worry less about the problems associated with it?
Those problems are familiar enough. Too much alcohol is bad for our health and leads us into an early grave. And the boom in drinking in public has had big social effects too. Town and city centres throughout Britain have, at the weekends, become for many people no-go areas because binge drinking has turned streets outside pubs and clubs into rowdy and even violent places. Are we turning our backs on all this? And do governments not need to worry about it any more?
Not according to the Scottish government. The Scots have long had a reputation as Britain’s heaviest drinkers and, as a consequence, the lowest life-expectancy. On average Scots consume 25% more alcohol per head than other people in Britain.
So this week the Scottish nationalist government in Edinburgh announced plans to impose a minimum charge of 45p per unit of alcohol in Scotland. That means that the price of the cheapest brands of cider sold in supermarkets could double or even treble in price. A bottle of vodka would cost an extra £4.
Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish health minister, said: “For too long, too many Scots have been drinking themselves into an early grave. It is no coincidence that as the affordability of alcohol has plummeted in recent decades, alcohol-related deaths, disease, crime and disorder have spiralled. It cannot be right that a man can exceed his weekly recommended alcohol limit for less than £3.50 a week.”
The Scottish government reckons its minimum pricing policy would immediately save 50 lives a year, cut alcohol-related hospital admission by 1,200 and save nearly 23,000 lost working days. In the longer term, even bigger benefits would be gained, it says.
But what of the rest of Britain? Although on a smaller scale, the same problems have existed elsewhere too. Even Tony Blair admitted in his just-published memoirs that he was drinking too much when he was at No 10. We don’t know how much David Cameron may be drinking but we do know that the Prime Minister thinks there are still problems to do with alcohol and not just those concerning health. He said recently that some city centres were like “the wild west” at weekends. He obviously thinks something still needs to be done, but what?
When it first came into government the coalition said it was considering banning supermarkets from promoting lost leaders in alcohol sales – that’s to say, selling certain drinks for less than the cost of producing them. But the pressing issue is whether or not to follow the Scottish example and impose a minimum selling price per unit of alcohol.
The Prime Minister has said he looks sympathetically on a proposal from twelve councils in the Manchester area to experiment with such an idea and Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer for England, advocates a minimum price of 50p per unit. But others object strongly to the idea. They argue that minimum-pricing is too blunt an instrument that will hit not only those who drink too much but also poorer people who are modest drinkers. Nor has minimum pricing been taken up with enthusiasm by the health secretary, Andrew Lansley. He hopes that negotiations with the drinks industry could lead to other ways of moderating alcohol consumption.
Another weapon available to the government and one that may appeal to a cash-strapped Treasury, is simply to increase the duty and tax on alcohol. But the drinks industry would probably squeal most loudly at such an idea, arguing that the UK’s taxes on alcohol are already the second-highest in the EU, amounting to ten times the rate levied in Germany and seven times that in France.
The government may in any case be deterred from imposing greater costs on alcohol on simple electoral grounds – it may fear there are just too many votes to be lost during a period when it expects anyway to become unpopular because of the impending public spending cuts. So it may look at other measures which don’t involve putting its hand in the public’s pocket such as, for example, reviewing the policy of 24-hour drinking introduced by the last government.
Or it may simply take comfort from the new figures showing that we are drinking less and decide that it doesn’t need to do anything.
What do you think? Do you think we are all drinking less than we were? Are you? If we are, what do you think the reason is? Do you think the falling drinking figures mean that alcohol-related problems can be left to solve themselves or not? Do you support minimum-pricing or not? Should taxes on alcohol be raised or not? Do you think “wild west” town and city centres are a problem or not, and if you do, what do you think should be done about it? And should we go back to stricter licensing laws or stick with 24-hour drinking?