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Tackling the UK's drink problem

Written by  Richard Garside (22/02/12)

Some years ago, when Labour was pushing legislation through parliament to relax the drinking laws, opponents of their plans were readily portrayed as po-faced killjoys. In one memorable (to me at least) radio debate a representative of the drinks industry accused me of being ‘against happiness’ because I raised concerns about the impact of happy hours on the health and habits of drinkers.

When Professor David Nutt made his now famous speech to the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in the summer of 2009, in which he highlighted the harms caused by alcohol, his views, though eminent, were far from mainstream. Indeed the speech led to his dismissal as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

On the face of it, the situation is now very different.

Last week, for instance, the Prime Minister highlighted the rise in alcohol-related hospital admissions, promising action to tackle ‘one of the scandals of our society’.

This week the warning from public health experts that 200,000 people risk early death from alcohol-related diseases, violence and accidents in the next 20 years – nearly 200 per week - was widely publicised.

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, has also broken cover on the relaxation of drinking laws. He never thought it was a good idea, he told a BBC Panorama programme.

Finally, the government’s alcohol strategy, due out next month, is widely expected to propose some form of minimum alcohol pricing policy. If it does, the floor may be set so low that in practice it will make little difference. The government also prefers voluntary codes over formal regulations, making implementation patchy at best. Nonetheless, these are important signs of a change in the mood music from government, if only that.

Yet beneath the rhetoric there is also a distinct ‘business as usual’ feel about alcohol policy. Consider, for instance, the government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal, launched with a fair degree of razzmatazz in March last year.

View the partners page on the Department of Health website and a cross section of food and drink manufacturers and distributors pop up. Rather thinner on the ground are public health and campaigning bodies. Indeed a number of them refused to sign up to the Deal. Too many of the targets were meaningless, they claimed. They also had concerns that the promotion of business interests, rather than public health, was at the heart of the Deal.

Then there are the Prime Minister’s comments last week. His proposed solutions to the 'scandal' he identified ran through a tired of collection of ‘tough’ policies, including police in A&E departments and US-style ‘drunk tanks’.

The basis for an alternative approach was spelled out some years ago in a submission to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee Inquiry into anti-social behaviour by Professor Dick Hobbs.

He warned that licensing relaxation would lead to a growth of drinking venues, with all the predictable public health and public order consequences we would expect. He also pointed out the correlation with the number and density of drinking venues and city centre violence and disorder.

His preferred solution was to restrict the growth and development of drinking venues and promote alternative city centre development less dependent on individuals getting drunk.

The focus, in other words, should be on the causes of problem alcohol consumption, rather than merely being tough on the symptoms.

Now where have we heard that before?


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