Talking about a revolution

23 July, 2010

Early indications from the new government are that it wants alcohol use and misuse to become more an issue of personal responsibility rather than of Whitehall regulation.

That hasn’t stopped a push to eradicate below-cost selling, but the general mood is that people and businesses should be allowed to make more of their own choices about alcohol.

This was reflected by speakers at a Westminster Food & Nutrition conference – more than one happy to kick

over the remains of what they saw as New Labour’s “nanny state”.

Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, was among them. “In the run-up to the World Cup we had some quite ludicrous conditions, such as not serving anyone in an England shirt after the match had finished,” she said. “I don’t see how that makes licensing work. We need less saying ‘you will’ because there will always be someone saying ‘I won’t’.”?While there was widespread support for self-regulation, there were also calls for more restrictions to be introduced where it suited the speakers – a rush to ban below-cost selling from the on-trade and a squeeze on late-night off-sales from the police lobby were two of note.

However, many delegates may not have been prepared for the approach of Josie Appleton, director of the Manifesto Club, a civil liberties group that campaigns against “the hyper-regulation of everyday life”. Appleton decried a multitude of regulations and police powers, including limits on on-trade promotions, drinking in public and standing up in some city-centre pubs.

She said innocent people were being punished by “having alcohol confiscated when they’re sitting in the park or staring at the sea”. Instead of regulating alcohol consumption, she said the background to alcohol misuse should be examined.

“People get off their faces for complex reasons,” she said, indicating that there should be a return to pre-ID days when many pubs turned a blind eye to under-age customers. “In the past there’s been an element of people learning to drink in an adult context. By stopping young people doing that we’ve created a parallel youth drinking culture which is asocialised.”?It’s unlikely the Manifesto Club’s stance on alcohol will reverse the trend toward regulation of the past decade or so, despite the coalition’s spirit of liberalism – but it certainly raised issues that have largely been swept under the carpet in recent discourse on alcohol issues.

Most speakers favoured a mature, but robust, approach to self-regulation within the boundaries of existing laws.

Vivienne Nathanson, director of ­professional activities at the British Medical Association, said allowing people to make their own choices was one thing, but if they didn’t have the right information they couldn’t.

“A lot of people think because they’re having wine with dinner they can’t be drinking excessively,” she said and criticised pubs for offering 25cl glasses of wine. “It’s not about stopping people drinking but giving people the option of having one or two units instead of three or four – giving people the information to help them make the right choices.”?Simon O’Brien, former lead for alcohol licensing at the Association of Chief Police Officers, said more needed to be done in the home to educate young people – not just by the drinks industry. “Do parents always know how many slabs of beer they’ve got in the garage and whether their children have access to them?” he asked.

O’Brien added: “There is a real issue around personal responsibility and people thinking about what they can and cannot drink. We need to say ‘you can have a drink, but that doesn’t have to mean getting drunk’.”?Despite the mood of liberalism there was plenty of appetite for tweaking the rules, or making new ones, to solve what has come to be seen as the most urgent problems – mainly around off-trade pricing.

A ban on below-cost selling seems inevitable and divisions of the industry – notably Tesco and Morrisons – seem to have adopted an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to the issue.

Nicolay Sorensen, director of ­policy and communications at Alcohol Concern, said: “If there’s one thing we hope will happen it’s that the extraordinarily cheap sale of alcohol will be tackled in some form.”?He also called for a narrowing of the gap between health provision for problem drinkers and dependent drug users, with just 6% of the former currently getting access to the appropriate treatment, compared with 58% of the latter.

Mark Baird, corporate social responsibility manager at Diageo, argued that it wasn’t the price of alcohol that was the problem but people’s ability to pay for it. The average price has gone up by 20% since 1980, he said, but disposable income has risen much faster.

“Too many people are drinking too much too often,” he said, “and all sides of the industry are determined to be part of evidence-based solutions.”?But he added minimum pricing would mean harmful drinkers having to find only another 85p a day to fund their habit and would lead to just a one unit per week fall in their consumption. “It’s not a targeted measure. We need a drink policy based on evidence,” he said.

But Professor Mike Kelly, director of the Public Health Excellence Centre at NICE, claimed: “Harmful drinkers and people consuming alcohol who are under-18 gravitate towards the cheapest prices. Minimum pricing is a targeted measure aimed at those two groups.”?The government may have signalled a subtle change in attitude to alcohol regulation, but it seems the detail of the debates and a widespread determination that “something must be done” isn’t going to undergo any sudden seismic shift.

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