Friday, 5 August 2011

A Blighted Panorama

I've just watched a Panorama programme about alcohol misuse, called predictably Dying For A Drink (available here for 9 more days).  Much of the programme concentrated on alcoholics, some of whom regularly drank 20 pints a day, or a bottle of vodka plus beer, or super-strength ciders.  Such levels of consumption maintained on an almost daily basis are indeed shocking, but are in no way typical of the kind of drinking we are likely to see in our local pub.  Drinking levels are actually falling in Britain, but the impression was clearly given that we are being swamped by a relentless tide of increasing misuse.  Alcohol is cheap, we were told, despite the fact that our beer duty is second highest in the EU.  Alcohol is too readily available: well, who allowed supermarkets to sell alcohol throughout the store, thus encouraging impulse buying, rather than in a discrete off licence section where under age sales could be much more easily monitored?  The government, of course, in one of its previous fits of deregulation and "burning of red tape".*

It's true that drinking behaviours, particularly among young people, can be very different nowadays.  For a night out, as students we used to meet in the pub or college bar at around 7.30 pm and take it from there.  Young people nowadays often preload before leaving home, and then go on to bars and then clubs.  Why?
  • The price of alcohol in pubs and clubs is much higher in real terms than in the past, especially after the excessive tax increases of recent years.  If beer had increased only by normal inflation since 1972, the year I went to college, a pint of bitter would cost around £1.40.  Drinking in pubs is not a cheap activity, so preloading cuts the high cost of a night out.*
  • The zealous drives against under age drinking mean that young people can't go to pubs and learn what is and isn't acceptable behaviour from older drinkers.  I first bought beer in a pub when I was 16; the last thing I wanted to do was to draw attention to myself by behaving wrongly, so I tried to fit in.  But nowadays, a lot of young people are developing their own approach to drinking free of any scrutiny, and often choose high strength drinks, which they do not have the experience or capacity to cope with.* 
Several people in the programme referred to drinking vodka by the bottle.  In alcohol terms, that's 15 pints of ordinary beer, but in its effects a lot more because it's concentrated into a pint and a quarter of liquid that can be knocked back quickly.  I have never seen anyone drink a bottle of vodka in a pub, so such vodka misuse must be taking place at home or in the park where there are no controls whatsoever.  This means that the fanatical enforcement of under age drinking laws in pubs is itself actually driving young people into unsupervised consumption of very strong drinks.*  As an aside, I can't understand why council officials who use under age people to entrap pubs into selling them alcohol aren't themselves guilty of inciting an offence.

This programme is clearly part of a campaign to foster moral panic about drinking in the hope that the very act will be seen as antisocial or even deviant, leading to a decline in consumption, but the consequence is more likely to be even more home drinking, which has shown a steady increase over the last 20 years.*  Moral panic is no way to deal with genuine problems because you generally get bad laws that backfire on you unexpectedly, and alcohol is no exception.  Besides, why the rush?  There have always been people who misuse alcohol; it's hardly a recent phenomenon, so surely we can take the time to address it properly, rather than adopt quick fixes that can do more harm than good.

This programme was big on tut tutting but didn't actually come up with any answers that will make a difference - just the usual anti-alcohol strategies, most of which have, I feel, contributed to the problem.  It was a missed opportunity.

* These are all examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences in action, and why I consider that anti-alcohol campaigns tend to be part of the problem, not the solution - not a point of view that the programme showed any awareness of in the slightest.


  1. My recollection is that alcoholic drinks have been sold through the normal tills of at least some supermarkets ever since I started using them regularly in around 1980. If there was ever a change in the law, it was before then. In addition, all the major supermarkets now enforce Challenge 21 or 25 pretty rigidly, so cannot be blamed for underage sales.

  2. I'm sure you're right Curmudgeon, although I do remember our former Morrison's unsuccessfully opposing having to set up a separate off licence and till within the store well into the 1980s. I'm also sure you're right about the age challenge procedures, but I can also imagine that a busy and tired assistant with a queue of 10 customers with laden trollies may be more likely to let something slip through in error than an assistant whose sole job is taking for alcohol.


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