Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Halt Neo-Prohibitionists at the Point of Sale

Ironically, in the light of what was published today, I wrote this several days ago for publication in a national, I have to say that when I called for more stringent punishment at point of sale, the ridiculous figures that are being bandied about are more than a little OTT, and shouldn't apply if it's a first offence, should be more repeat offender based. But anyway, it never made it to print, so here you go!

After just over 10 years of being involved in the licensed trade I've come to the conclusion that virtually every proposal or piece of legislation I've seen or heard proposed has merely been a sticking plaster on the boil of problem drinking in this country.

And it seems it’s about to get worse. It seems the Conservatives, alongside their bizarre alcohol labelling plans announced this morning, are planning to tax what they call higher alcohol 'problem drinks'.

But who decides what qualifies as a 'problem' drink? Groups like the Institute of Alcohol Studies*, which is funded by the Temperance movement but masquerades as an independent research body? The BMA or another faction of the health lobby? Because it won’t be any of the bodies who allegedly represent the pub or drinks industry, they’re too busy fighting amongst themselves and, most importantly, who’s going to speak for the consumer?

My big issue with the ‘tax it at the source’ approach is that it completely fails to address the core issue of alcohol abuse in the UK - it's not what's made, it's how it's sold.

Let's take the recent release of Tactical Nuclear Penguin, the 32%ABV beer from BrewDog, as an example - this beer was sold only through limited specialist retailers and cost minimum of £30 for 330cl bottle, and the only purveyor in London was limiting the sale to one bottle per person.

However, if you go to your local Sainsbury's, you can buy as many bottles as you like of 350ml bottles of Sainsbury's Dry London Gin at 37.5%ABV for £4.68 a bottle.

If you're looking to abuse alcohol, which one are you going to buy? Not a toughie is it?

And, to be honest, where's the deterrent not to serve people who are drunk? I was told the other day that tattooists are automatically banned if it's found they ink someone who is under-18, so perhaps a more strenuous enforcement of the licensing laws around serving people who are clearly incapacitated, or looking to get that way, (particularly in supermarkets and convenience stores) is what's needed?

And let's take a look at the failure of licensing reform to change us all into sensible, continental-style drinkers, is that anything to do with flexible opening hours? No, it's because we're a nation obsessed with standing up in pubs with a pint, not eating before we go out and having about 600,000 different ways of saying drunk - it's in our psyche.

But instead of trying to challenge that outlook by encouraging the young to get used to alcohol and see it as the norm, rather than something illicit to be abused, we try to keep them away until they are 18 and 'responsible' - yep, that's working!

I've never understood this attitude. Being in pubs, around different age groups, in a safer environment than a street corner or park bench, allows the learning of social norms, where teenagers will be picked up on poor behaviour or be ejected from the environment where all their mates are - it's an excellent way to learn how to act in public and around alcohol.

And as for saying that the use of units on labelling should be replaced with how many centilitres of alcohol there are in each bottle is just bonkers given that most of country is just beginning to get a handle on the concept of units!

I'm not saying I have all the answers here, I'm aware this is a complex issue with a lot of economic implications for any Government way past my understanding, all I know is, alcohol isn't evil and penalising producers and sensible drinkers who would like to share a 33oml bottle of 32% beer with their partner, over time and in the comfort of their own home or in a couple of armchairs next to a fire in a pub, isn't the answer.

*Depressingly, I exposed the Institute of Alcohol Studies nine years ago, when I worked for the Morning Advertiser. Then in 2005 I appeared on NewsWatch to challenge the producer of the BBC's show Britain's Streets of Booze on a lot of factual errors in the show, including putting a spokesperson from IAS forward on the show as 'independent’. Unbelievably they were then invited to advise the European Union in 2006 on their alcohol strategy, still claiming to be independent.


  1. The one that bugs me is Alcohol Concern. It pretends to be an independent body but receives 72% of its funding from the government. It also receives a big chunk from Lottery funds - for which they'll have had to tick nanny-state boxes.

    I think it would be fair to say that Alcohol Concern IS the voice of the Government on the subject of alcohol.

  2. why "particularly in supermarkets and convenience stores" ?

    whilst there is merit in much you say, you let it down with the assumption that pubs are good and off trade bad.

    All the late night fights, A&E trouble all occur outside bars. Home boozers do not go out for fights in cab ranks at 2am.

  3. I mostly agree with you there Cooking, apart from the fact that research shows that a lot of people are drinking very cheap booze in quantity BEFORE going out.

    And also the largest problem with underage sales is in the c-store sector, which is why I went on to make my point that I think it's more sensible that minors be allowed to learn about booze in pubs than on park benches.

  4. You are the first of what I've read to claim actual evidence of the common enough assertion of widespread preloading existing or even being linked to reported alcohol related crime. By preloading I presume you mean going out drunk and not a quick snifter? As for students and the like that may very well head out later after a cheap scoop at home, is there a proposal to put more money in their pocket to spend in pubs, or do we think upping a 10 quid bottle of Smirnoff to 14 quid is the answer? I’d love to read a future post where you point us to the evidence. I mean evidence, not just disgruntled publicans uncertain whether the drunk entering his bar came straight from home or another bar. Evidence from crime stats of those drunks arrested and where they got drunk, home or bar, off or on trade.

  5. Will have to go back through notes from a couple of years ago - if my shabby memory serves it was an Alcohol Strategy meeting where someone stood up and said they had definite evidence,hope I've still got the notebooks now!

    If I can't find it then all I can say was I took the quote in good faith.

    If the article reads slightly on trade biased it's because I feel alcohol, first and foremost, is a social lubricant - which is not to say that people don't enjoy social occasions at home before you shout at me!

    What concerns me if you look at any pictures used by the media, the Government or the anti-alcohol lobby it's always of the on trade.

    Or it's a scare story about something like Tokyo, when there's no way in hell that, what are deemed, problem drinkers would buy it when they could down enough cheap spirits to kill an elephant for the same price!

    But it's pubs & these kind of speciality beers that could easily face a ban under ill-though-out blanket legislation.

  6. The first source you quote is the result of interviewing 380 people. That alone ought to ring a few alarm bells. The second a new item from of all places the Southport Reporter concerning a mystery shopper survey. Both primarily involve people in their 20’s, and not wider society.

    Young people appear to like getting drunk. If you or anyone think the late night bars frequented by younger people are responsible establishments, your argument is weak.

    Is anyone looking into why people want to get drunk, other than the fact they live in Scotland?

    I like the line “Research has shown that among the reasons this has become popular are to accelerate drunkenness” Well yeh.

    Now my intention is not to shout at you, and I hope my manner is convivial and polite, but I remain unconvinced.

  7. Pack it all in, move to the West Coast. We've got an abundance of Proper Real Keg, Cooking Lager, and even Cask Ale is now flowing in San Diego. You can get rat arsed without worrying about the neo-prohibitionists wrecking your gig. We've been through that a while ago. It is now frowned upon, and we make up for it with high gravity Proper Real Keg ales. A pint of Hop Suey for you Frau Cole, and for The Cookster, all the $2 pints of piss you can stomach!!

  8. Tempting at times Whorst, tempting!

  9. While undoubtedly a certain amount of pre-loading does go on, I'm sure the vast majority of off-trade alcohol isn't consumed in pre-loading, so it's wrong to punish the majority for the sins of the minority. And even if we had a minimum price of 50 or 60p a unit, there would still be a financial benefit to pre-loading.

    I do agree, though, that giving out alcohol licences to every two-bit corner shop isn't a good idea, and that's where a lot of the problem stems from. But, of course, if you stop that, you give even more market power to the supermarkets.