We are not a nation of binge drinkers—and new plans to make us drink less will not workby Jamie Bartlett / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Some young adults are stupendous drinkers, but over the last decade Britons in general have toned it down
Ever since we discovered the joys of drinking alcohol, our leaders have worried we enjoy it too much. In the mid-tenth century, King Edgar introduced the first recorded law to curb drunkenness, limiting how much people could drink by putting pegs inside the horns from which they drank. There since followed 1,000 years of usually failed attempts to regulate when, where, and how much we drink—up to the “24-hour café-culture” Licensing Act of 2003.
The latest targets are binge drinkers. Since the Daily Mail declared war on them in 2005, when the act came fully into force, rarely a day passes without a story of society’s alcohol-fuelled slide into the moral abyss, or of A&E departments overflowing. In response to a perceived binge drinking epidemic, the coalition will launch a new alcohol strategy later this year, and a low-intensity campaign is being waged by public health professionals to make sure this strategy is as tough as possible.
But is the problem really that bad? For all the sound and fury, you are unlikely to be greeted by Hogarth’s Gin Alley on leaving the house—because Brits are actually sobering up. Total alcohol consumption has fallen almost every year since 2005, and most quickly among young people. “Binge-drinking” (technically drinking more than four pints in one session if you are a man, three if a woman) is in steady decline, and last year alcohol-related deaths also fell.
So why is it such a concern? Localised studies show that there is a small, but possibly growing, number of young adults who are drinking stupendous amounts of alcohol, and often in an intentionally reckless and irresponsible way. More of them are engaging in low-level antisocial behaviour, and ending up in A&E. Certain city centres have become much more rowdy than they were (although to be fair, many of these city centres were also once devoid of life).
Over the last decade, Britons in general have become more moderate drinkers, while a small group have become more far less so. Opinion polls suggest that people increasingly believe alcohol-related disorder is a serious problem in their neighbourhood. It is this sense of public disorder and moral decadence which is exercising the government, public and the media.
The Conservative party’s pre-election policy to sort out binge drinking out was to introduce a minimum price for alcohol, set at between 40p and 50p per unit. This strategy would be more suited to a country in which the problem was mass drinking culture, not a hardcore few. People enjoy drinking, in contrast to self-loathing smokers, which means a minimum price would only work to stop the young binge drinkers if it were set astronomically high. This would be regressive, with money flowing from poor households to large retailers (because a higher number of those from poorer households drink), and might explain why many retailers support it. Anyway, minimum pricing is almost certainly in contravention of European competition law.
So what to do? The proposal always on hand when all else has failed is more education. But this is largely ineffective against binge drinking. Those who drink too much know they shouldn’t, but they don’t much care. They also realise it is irresponsible, which is sometimes the whole point.
The short-term answer, if indeed there is one, is enforcement. There are plenty of powers to deal with binge drinkers, but they are not always used. Only one—yes one—person was found guilty of selling of alcohol to a drunken person in 2006-07. One of new Labour’s big ideas was the drinks banning order, designed to stop reckless bingers from drinking in public establishments for a certain period of time. Such orders are so rare that one was the subject of a recent BBC3 programme (in which the order ultimately was breached anyway).
This failure to enforce the law has sent a powerful tacit signal: that it is perfectly acceptable to be heroically drunk in public, or that ending up in hospital is the mark of a classic night out. This is how social norms develop and, once accepted, they are notoriously hard to change. Efforts to do so by government also have a habit of backfiring: by 1100 King Edgar’s peg was a popular drinking game, with revellers racing each other to “drink to the peg” as quickly as possible. But a fine, a criminal charge and—sometimes—a night in the cells will usually do the trick.