in Drugs and drugs policy

Alcohol: action necessary

The other night I tried to get a cup of tea in Hoxton at nine thirty pm only to be told to piss off by a spotty barman who was so rushed off his feet that he could barely be bothered to look up from his fashion magazine. There was no end of exotic cocktails on offer, but seemingly no demand or no desire to serve me something less intoxicating.

It often seems to me in London that we don’t like non or even moderate drinkers. On at least one occasion I’ve taken to hiding pints of beer under my seat, bought for me despite my protestations that I didn’t want a fourth a fifth or a sixth. We’re suspicious of the sober as if they don’t they want to have fun. Or perhaps jealous of how they can have fun without the lubricant we need? Save tea, there’s nothing else which glues British society together like alcohol. New addition to the family: let’s wet the babies head; someone died: let’s drown our sorrows. Any excuse will do. As Reverend Sidney Smith said:

What two ideas are more inseparable than beer and Britannica?

I am not, of course, against having fun. But with alcohol we’ve been sold a sort of fun without due consideration for the harm it does to the individual or wider society. There appears to be no objective appraisal of the dangers of drinking large amounts of alcohol, and a blindness to the sheer horror of town centres rendered no-go areas to families every night of the week due to alcohol fuelled antics. When it comes to alcohol, threats are downplayed and benefits lauded.

Indeed, next time someone boasts to you ‘I was so drunk that I could hardly stand’, take a step back and think about what a bizarre statement this really is, and how we can arrived at a place where this is regarded as an achievement. Generally people like to boast about their abilities like how many hot dogs they can eat, or Munroes they’ve bagged, yet with alcohol it’s the opposite – how much you can’t do. And we all laugh along. It’s clear that excess drinking isn’t just about the behaviour of individuals, but occurs within a social and economic context.

Supermarkets are selling alcoholic drinks at prices cheaper than bottled water. Bars are vertical drinking establishments, intoxicating people to the point of unconsciousness, before ejecting them (sometimes rather forcefully in my experience) onto the street for the ambulances to scrape up. The Government finds itself conflicted – it makes money from taxes on alcoholic drinks but also finances the NHS. Famously, before the 2001 election the Labour Government sent out a text message to its young supporters encouraging them to vote Labour on the basis of a relaxation of the licensing laws. In a way so are psychiatrists; if you guys didn’t drink so much booze quite few of us wouldn’t be needed….

Here are some facts, gleaned from Institute of Alcohol Studies factsheets:

  • There are significantly more premises licensed to sell alcohol than 20 years ago. The licensed capacity of premises in the centre of Manchester increased by 242% between 1996 and 1999. This expansion has led to more competition,including heavy discounting, which is associated with binge drinking and increased drunkenness.
    (Interim Analytical Report. Strategy Unit Alcohol Harm Reduction Project. Strategy Unit 2003)
  • Between 1980 and 2003 the price of alcohol increased by 24% more than prices generally. However, households’ disposable income increased by 91% in real terms over the same period, making alcohol 54% more affordable in 2003 than in 1980 (Statistics on alcohol: England, 2004. Department of Health. Office for National Statistics Statistical Bulletin, 17 September 2004)
  • In 2001, £36,636,000,000 was spent on alcohol, equivalent to 5.8% of all consumer expenditure.
  • Britons spend around £17 billion in pubs each year. In 2002, the nightclub market was worth £1.7 billion.
  • In comparison, Britons spent £7.2 billion on activities such as going to the cinema, theatre, museum and bingo combined. £7.4 billion was spent on gambling in 2002.
    Source for above three
  • The Strategy Unit calculated that for England and Wales the costs of some but not all adverse consequences of alcohol consumption to be in the region of £20 billion.
    Strategy Unit: Alcohol Misuse: How much does it cost? September 2003
  • Of the 580 deaths in drink drive accidents in 1996, 59 per cent were drivers or riders over the limit and 41per cent were innocent victims.
    (Tomorrow’s roads: safer for everyone. The Government’s road safety strategy and casualty reduction targets for 2010. DETR March 2000)
  • Up to 1,000 young people a week suffer serious facial injuries as a result of drunken assaults. 18,000 young people are scarred for life each year.
    (D Campbell. Name Your Poison. The Guardian 8 June 1998. Cited in ‘Taking Stock:What do we know about violence? ESRC Violence Research Programme HMSO 1998)

And I haven’t even touched here on the damage done to individual families and health by dependence and overconsumption.

I’m rather hoping that someone is going to do something about this soon. There’s a lot that can be addressed if the Government and local councils have the stomach for it. Reining back the number of licensed premises, reducing the duty free allowance are two. An important step one was illustrated to my way home on the tube the other week (my bike is broken), when I saw this advertisement:

Advertising’s aim is to sell more alcoholic drinks. Otherwise producers would spend their money on something else. You can see that is says in very small letters that we are recommended to drink responsibly. In much bigger letters the advertisement wishes to plant in our minds that drinking Gordon’s Gin is for the exceptional and those aspiring to greatness. Other advertisements for other drinks show attractive people leading desirable lifestyles. There has been concern that these advertisements disproportionately influence the young.

It’s hard to miss the parallels with the advertisement of tobacco products, which have been banned for the past few years. Alcohol advertisements should be banned also.

More information:

Today Programme report0814 23 July 2008 – UK hospital admissions due to alcohol have increased markedly compared to 13 years ago.

Alcohol: The world’s favourite drug Griffith Edwards

Understanding and modifying the impact of parents’ substance misuse on children
Advan. Psychiatr. Treat., Mar 2007; 13: 79 – 89

Alcohol’s damaging effect on the brain
Alcohol Alert Vol 63 October 2004


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  1. This has been my first time visiting the UK and I’ve been in London for a week here and there, and the very first thing to smack me in the face was the amount of drinking that goes on. It’s the thing that people brag about and then a couple of my friends have shook their heads about. And then there is the whole joking about alcoholism. I’ve always marveled in general about drinking culture, but it’s a whole other thing here in the UK, isn’t it?

    Do you really think that banning alcohol ads would help? I don’t know much, but it’s definitely different from the drinking culture in America. Not as many people (well, over the age of 21 or once they’re out of university anyway) seem just so properly enthralled and enamored with drinking itself, as if it’s a crucial part of identity.

    Oh, and I’ve been reading your blog since the winter, can’t really remember how I stumbled across it. I really do hope you keep it up for a long time to come.

  2. I think that banning the ads would be a relatively painless start. What’s really necessary is a change in societal attitudes. I’d also be keen on making all pubs seating only.

    With you being from America this gives me the perfect opportunity tell you of (hypothetical) situation that well illustrates the difference in drinking attitudes in the USA and UK:

    In the UK if you say to your friend that you’ll have a lemonade, your friend will often say, ‘don’t be silly, I’ll buy you a pint’. Whereas in the USA they might say, ‘that’s a good idea, I think I’ll have one of those myself’.

    Thanks for the compliment!

  3. There are clearly cultural differences in the drinking habits of the US compared to the UK. In my travels across the US I comment to friends that the churches, particularly in the south, are massive and run as serious businesses and there is almost a complete lack of Pubs. This is coupled with the prevalence of what we would term “weak beer”. With less opportunity for “serious” drinking and with a higher minimum age there seems to be less of a problem but there is no lack of advertising.

    I fear that reducing advertising would not help, increasing the minimum drinking age would help and maybe a reduction in the alcohol level in the beer would also help. All this ignores the prevalence of the happy hour and spirit based drinks clearly aimed at the young – this is an area where advertising needs to be more rigorously regulated.

  4. Well as you know there are only 2 types of people. Those who, when giving directions, use churches as landmarks, and those who use pubs.