MPs' noose tightens on alcohol

14 November, 2008

What is it about Brits and booze? We're not alone in our irresponsible attitude towards alcohol (it seems to be a northern European problem, possibly related to a dearth of sunlight and the absence of an outdoor culture), but put a pint, a bottle or a glass of wine in our hands and too many of us behave like children. Come to think of it, that's doing a disservice to most infants.

This is not the place to discuss the damage that alcohol misuse does to our society. Suffice to say that crime and disorder, the strain on the NHS and the social, personal and work-related costs add up to £20 billion a year, if you believe Alcohol Concern. What the drinks industry needs to ask itself, sooner rather than later, is what it can do about the problem, especially in the light of this week's Home Affairs Select Committee report on alcohol and policing.

If you missed the document, it argued, among other things, that the police are spending far too much time dealing with alcohol-related violence. As the chairman, Keith Vaz, put it: "We cannot have, on the one hand, a world of alcohol promotions for profit that fuels surges of crime and disorder and, on the other, the police diverting all their resources to cope with it." Vaz is being somewhat alarmist here, but you get the general message: alcohol is back in the dock.

MPs deliver a super blow

The committee made a number of recommendations, including penalty notices for disorder, banning "happy hours" and empowering local authorities to review licences. More importantly for the off-trade, Vaz and his fellow MPs said that supermarkets should be prevented from using alcohol as a loss-leader to drive footfall, and recommended imposing a minimum per unit price.

The Wine & Spirit Trade Association's response is that "there are more than enough laws to deal with alcohol-related disorder" and that "calls for the government to set the price of alcohol or raise prices are simply unfair in the current economic climate, and will do nothing to stop the small minority who misuse alcohol". The first point is true enough, although it does not address the matter of diverting police resources to deal with drunken behaviour. The second is also well argued. We do not need the government to tell us how much our glass of beer, wine or whisky should cost.

Where I agree wholeheartedly with the report is in its call for an end to the practice of selling booze below cost, something which has got far worse over the past 12 months, but has been with us for decades. Talk to most senior retailers off the record and they will admit that they are being forced to "take a position" on certain lines to remain competitive. All too often, this is done without consulting the supplier.

Loss-leaders in the hot seat

If the major retailers don't change their policy on loss-leaders, the government may force them to do so. The chances are Rizla-thin in the middle of a credit crunch, but why don't Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Aldi and the like declare that they will not sell alcohol, even on promotion, below cost? I don't have a problem with them taking single digit margins, but loss-leaders make the industry look irresponsible at a time when the government is looking to reduce alcohol misuse.

This brings us to the wider question of our relationship with booze. Changing the prevailing culture - drinking to get drunk, rather than for pleasure - will take a generation or more. But now is the time to start. The WSTA deserves praise for calling on the government to make education about alcohol (both positive and negative) a compulsory element of the school curriculum. Along with nutrition and parenting and relationship skills, lessons about booze would be a good thing. Under-age drinking may be declining, but it still touches 21% of 11 to 15-year-olds (the figure was last updated in 2006 and may have got worse since).

How might alcohol classes work? Well, how about involving the major drinks companies, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous, the police, the medical profession and Alcohol Concern? By all means teach kids that drunks are losers, not people to be emulated and admired, but also tell them about the healthy benefits of moderate alcohol consumption and the wonderful diversity and complexity of our favourite drug. In this instance, knowledge might lead to more informed decisions about booze.

We could also teach school kids to eat while they are drinking, and I'm not talking about a packet of salt & vinegar crisps here. The French, the Spanish, the Italians and the Portuguese all have higher per capita consumption figures

than we do, but fewer alcohol-related problems. They generally see drink as part of a balanced, healthy diet, not as something to get smashed on come Friday night.




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