Monday, 18 March 2013

Minimum alcohol pricing

I seldom wade into politics in my blog but this time I cannot let the issue of alcohol pass by once again.  It appears Prime Minister David Cameron is back-tracking on a commitment to increase the minimum price for alcohol.  Furthermore he is missing an opportunity to take a step towards resolving some of the misery and needless suffering caused by alcohol in our society.

If the newspapers are correct - and this appears perfectly plausible - there seems to have been some heavy lobbying taking place from other Government Ministers and from the drinks industry to allow things to continue as they are.  Amongst those are David Davis who claims raising the minimum price of alcohol will".....hit poor people. It’ll hit people in the north. It’ll hit the pensioner having their one bottle of wine a week; it’ll hit the hard-up couple doing the same. It’s going to cost…it’s going to transfer £1billion from the public to the people who sell alcohol, and it’s not going to work".

Sure, many people will drink alcohol without any problems whatsoever.  By tradition in the UK, having a glass of wine (or whatever) is associated with celebrations, happy times, socialising and so on.  That's absolutely fine if that's what people want to do from time to time.  Then there's more ordinary routine drinking with a bottle of wine over a meal at home with friends - on the surface it could be argued there's nothing wrong with that either.  

However in the UK there are so many problems associated with alcohol and in particular the abuse of alcohol.  This will show itself amongst young adults eager for a good time on Friday or Saturday nights.  All too easily people's behaviour changes which lead to fights breaking out, people getting hurt, inhibitions dropping, risky behaviour taking place.  I once remember having a discussion with a group of offenders in Hemel Hempstead (this was in the late 1990s and I don't believe anything has changed)  They described a "good night" out as:
  • take as much money as you can, smoke some cannabis beforehand
  • meeting like-minded friends in the first town centre pub at 9.00pm for a few high speed drinks
  • then go to 2 or 3 other pubs, meeting up with other friends and becoming all the more rowdy as they went along 
  • by 11.00pm they would each have drunk about 6 to 8 pints of lager
  • for most they would also be smoking (ordinary cigarettes) and easily get through a packet of 20 during their night out
  • at closing time it was often fun to antagonise someone a bit, not too far, just enough to have a brush with the law or someone in authority 
  • a take-away meal would follow - fish & chips, kebab, Chinese etc (and probably thrown up later on)
  • enter a local night club at midnight
  • buy some drugs - amphetamines mentioned as a good choice
  • flirt with some girls, confrontation with boyfriends
  • drink a mixture of spirits (vodka mostly - a good image?) and beer
  • thrown out for rowdy behaviour which continues in the town centre streets (memory very uncertain by this stage)
  • picked up by the Police
  • wake up in a Police cell, feeling awful
  • what a great night out
Then there are the more discreet folk who drink alcohol at home, in private.  Behind those respectable-looking front doors is often a scene of complete despair as the steps of addiction take hold along with the inevitable fall out.  The 'fall out' includes diabetes and many other health conditions, the spectre of domestic abuse and violence.  The list goes on.

Will pricing solve these problems?

No, of course not, at least not on its own  Minimum pricing would, I believe, be a good positive step in the right direction.  The use and abuse of alcohol in our society is complex as indeed are the problems arising from it.  Much is to do with society's attitude towards alcohol as well as the availability.  By availability that includes pricing, supermarkets, licensing and so on.

There is, however, a number of influential people who do have a voice which is in David Cameron's earshot.  These include Dr Vivienne Nathanson of the British Medical Association who said the "tiny amount" of adding just 30p - 40p a week on the cost of alcohol would be outweighed by the benefits.  The BMA is suggesting the Prime Minister should "be courageous - this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save lives, to save the country some money.  Both good deals for him".

I heard on the radio as I was driving to work last week this issue being discussed.  I think it was Sarah Wollaston MP who said words to the effect that people will continue to die while alcohol is too cheap.  She came across as being sincere, forthright and saying clearly how wrong she thought David Cameron was.

My own view on this

  • there is so much needless misery caused by alcohol, I believe the overall balance is heavily against alcohol.  This applies to people claiming red wine is good for you.  I'm not sure about this and I still think red wine does more harm than good; that's why I'd go for grape juice and without any alcohol
  • the misery includes fights, irresponsible behaviour, risky behaviour, criminal records, health problems which can show themselves in the medium and long term
  • arguably the biggest misery is addiction: I remember talking with someone who was dependent on alcohol and was crying, sobbing in front of me wanting to be freed from the terrible addiction.  Addiction comes about over time, gradually creeping up on people and overcoming it can be very difficult 
  • examples of the Government influencing public spending does work (to a point) and examples include cigarettes, car road tax, VAT levels etc
  • alcohol should be regarded as a treat for special occasions, not something consumed every day
  • through example and leadership, society's attitude should change - binge drinking cannot be socially acceptable (i.e. consider how society has changed it's view on drink driving)
  • the minimum price rise should be achieved by taxation - the Government needs as much money as it can.  The extra revenue could be used, as an example, to invest further into public health
  • very strong lagers and beers should be additionally taxed to make them become unbelievably expensive.  As it is, some are as strong as wine and I question how many people would as for "a pint of your best wine please"
  • the Government, David Cameron in particular, must be prepared to act in a way that shows strong leadership.  While it is appropriate for a Prime Minister to change his or her mind in the light of new information or advice, a clear direction is a feature of a strong Government which also avoids being influenced all the time by public opinion.  The Government must act in the best interests of the country as a whole, not just as a way of keeping people happy and then gain popularity
  • MPs and other public figures should not underestimate the influence they can have and to use it for the benefit of those they represent.  Occasionally rising above public opinion can have a cost at the ballot box but some issues are a matter of conscience
  • I have blogged about this before - why I'm tee total


  1. I have seen a lot of the very ugly side of drink culture in this country and hope that one day people come to realise that you don't need alcohol.
    I agree with a lot of your points.

  2. Appreciate your support H.

    You know, when I heard the Budget headlines in the last week I could hardly believe the 1p off a pint of beer! What difference will that make to anyone - the economy, the nation's health or anything? I sometimes think Boy George is on a different planet (or perhaps his advisors are). Now is not the time to be making alcohol any cheaper, even if it is a humble 1p.

  3. You have a nice blog. You were able to discuss another side of the issue. If everyone would have the same way of thinking as you do or at least understand what this article conveys, probably, we will end up with solutions and wouldn't depend much on companies that offer sober companion services.