Whenever the subject of
under-age drinking is debated, the tabloid press inevitably points the finger at "dodgy off-licences". The drinks trade, for its part, traditionally criticises parenting and asks why more isn't done, either by police or the education system, to target young people themselves.
The government's newly published Youth Alcohol Action Plan has something for everyone. There is a refreshing new emphasis on working with families and schools to find ways of stopping problem drinking before it starts. But there are also dark warnings of new ways of dealing with a retail industry that clearly still ha sn't quite convinced ministers that efforts to put its house in order are working.
Instead of taking away the licences of stores that sell to under-18s three times in three months, the new rule will be "two strikes and you're out". There will also be a "yellow card" and "red card" system for licence-holders - although quite how this differs from the "two strikes" idea is not fully explained.
The document talks about "making best practice mandatory" - not an easy concept to get your head around - and "ensuring that existing powers to identify problem retail premises selling alcohol are fully utilised". What exactly does that mean? Satellite monitoring of high streets? Again, we await the detail.
Challenge 21 must become the national norm, the ministers responsible for the document declare, evidently unaware that it more or less already is (except where retailers have deemed Challenge 25 or Challenge 30 more appropriate). There should also be voluntary in-house test purchasing - something the judges at the Responsible Drinks Retailing Awards have been reading about on entry forms for years.
The government wants national funding for test purchasing. Maybe that would mean a much-needed national set of standards for the way such activities are conducted? Don't bank on it. The same document also insists that locally-organised stings will remain part of the mix.
Amid all this Daily Mail-pleasing sabre rattling, there are some figures that really ought to be central to all future government policy in this area. Quoting research, the report says: "Alcohol consumed by young people is increasingly likely to be obtained from the home.
"Of the 11 to 15-year-olds who drank 14 or more units in the previous week, 48% claim to have been given alcohol directly by their parents, while 42% claim to have taken it without their parents' consent."
In other words, the proportion of alcohol supplied directly to children by shops is, at an absolute maximum, 10%. This doesn't allow for the quantities
provided by friends or obliging strangers, obtained illegally in pubs, or even stolen. The off-trade's role in the teen drinking crisis has certainly been overstated, even if retailers themselves would acknowledge, without any need for ministerial threats, that they could do better.
Gavin Partington, head of communications at the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, welcomes parts of the document, but questions the need for new laws when existing legislation to deal with illegal drinking is not being fully utilised. "Our concern is that the existing laws aren't being rigorously enforced, so before we rush to create a whole set of new laws, let's give the police the encouragement and resources to enforce the current laws on a more consistent basis," he says.
The figures don't lie
Partington goes on to cite government figures showing that, in 2006, 10 children were taken to court for purchasing alcohol, 13 were cautioned and 62 were handed penalty notices.
In the same year, 1,199 retailers were prosecuted for under-age sales, 61 were cautioned and 3,195 given penalty notices. Maybe, just maybe, the government is recognising an imbalance that has been blindingly obvious to the trade for some time.
Matthew Hughes, joint managing director of Bargain Booze, says "the shift in focus to parental and individual responsibility is welcome and overdue", but adds: "I thought that, despite the hype, the 'new' announcements were largely just a re-hash of [culture secretary] Andy Burnham's comments in his March 4 speech following the review by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport
(DCMS) of the Licensing Act 2003.
"My understanding is that the so-called 'yellow card/red card' relates to circumstances in which a licensee is found not to be adhering to conditions on the premises licence.
"One instance results in the yellow and two, or a repeat offence, results in the red. The 'two strikes' rule seems to be more to do with the crime of persistently selling to minors.
"The other industry-focused bit that was in the press seemed to be the national roll-out of Challenge 21. This is kind of odd since the industry has adopted Challenge 21 to the extent that it's almost ubiquitous already."
So should the trade be alarmed by the document or regard it as essentially more of the same? If we're looking for positives, it's encouraging to see ministers finally dragging schools and parents into the alcohol debate.
But at the same time, it's curious to see so many policy objectives given a public airing before the government has seen the results of two other studies: KPMG's audit of the drinks trade's self-regulation, and Sheffield University's study of drinks promotions on behalf of the Department of Health.
The inconvenient truth is that the trade remains at the mercy of endless government "crackdowns". Regardless of evidence to the contrary, some will forever regard drinks retailing as an undisciplined, under-regulated sector only too willing to turn a blind eye to under-age sales in its pursuit of profits.
Retailers in the firing line
"Several alcohol misuse enforcement campaigns have been conducted in recent years, which have reduced the test purchase failure rate from around 50% to about 20%," the government document says. "The latest campaign, in July 2007, reduced it yet further to around 15%.
"However, it remains the case that under-18s overwhelmingly say that they are able to purchase alcohol from outlets which will sell to them.
"There is evidence that, while there has been progress in tackling under-age sales, some retailers continue to act in a way that is in breach of the law."