IN NOVEMBER last year, Off Licence News lamented that not a week went by without “yet another attack on alcohol and alcohol retailing”. If anything, the pressure has increased. In the past week, the Government has reportedly reviewed the disappointing (if predictable) results of 24-hour licences, and an answer to a parliamentary question produced the information that 1340 children aged 13 or under were admitted to hospital in 2006-7 suffering from the effects of alcohol. Mixed with these stories, though, are others that suggest that retailers are, at last, moving to counteract the negative publicity. Several chains are withdrawing strong lager and cider; others have promised to make it more difficult for under-age drinkers to buy alcohol. The news, then, is uncertain, but the concern remains strong.
In such a debate, it might not seem entirely natural to look for guidance from Matthew Hughes, the managing director of Bargain Booze. Making allowances for his commercial interest, it is none the less interesting when he says: “The Government should be tackling demand, not supply.” It is an unrealistic approach, of course. The first step in tackling any sort of publicly recognised vice — be it drug-taking, or gun- or knife-crime — is to restrict supply. But Mr Hughes’s point needs to be answered.
The relationship with alcohol is a long and reasonably simple one. Over the centuries, it has been, first and foremost, the means of alleviating the effects of painful toil. It continues to be used as such, but also as a relaxant and a social catalyst. Alcoholic drinks have been made to taste nice, and have a pleasant effect, and it is for this reason that they remain popular. The problem arises, of course, when they become too popular. Binge-drinking — defined as drinking twice the sensible limit in one bout, i.e. eight units for a man, six for a woman — is currently indulged in by 18 per cent of men and eight per cent of women. (This rises to 30 per cent of men and 22 per cent of women in the 16-24 age bracket.) The deleterious effects are many, and statistics can be picked almost at random: 140,000 hospital admissions in 2005-6 for alcohol-related mental conditions; one man in nine dependent on alcohol; 22,000 deaths a year attributed to drinking. The actual toll varies from year to year, but the effects are not new.
Neither are the remedies. Besides tampering with the price and policing the supply chain, those anxious about excessive drinking need to acknowledge their part in making it more acceptable. Quite simply, everybody who drinks should consider drinking less. The Pauline concern for weaker brethren is as justified now as at the time of the great teetotal movements of the 19th century. Those who are not called to complete abstinence can nevertheless ensure that a certain number of days a week are alcohol-free. In this way, a better example may be set for those who naturally associate drinking with adulthood. The MD of Bargain Booze will surely agree, even if it affects his bottom line.