Wrong target, wrong strategy

By Peter Coulson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Chief medical officer, Alcoholic beverage

Coulson: change of attitude is needed
Coulson: change of attitude is needed
Demonising alcohol and those who sell it is a short-term measure, says Peter Coulson.

I never thought I would find myself on this page agreeing with a Westminster councillor on a licensing issue, but here goes.

Hats off to Edward Argar, who told a recent seminar on alcohol harm reduction that what is required is a change to long-term attitudes to drink, rather than yet more controlling legislation.

This comes in the wake of the proposal spearheaded by the Chief Medical Officer (to give it more authority) to set a minimum price per unit for alcoholic drinks. To back this, supporters claim that a 50p minimum "would mean 3,393 fewer deaths, 97,000 fewer hospital admissions and a saving to the nation of £1bn."

Such accurate prediction is breathtaking! It is based presumably on a Sheffield University report that Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has welcomed as showing that her strategy for clobbering the licensed trade is based on sound academic research. I have read this report and while it links price to the potential for over-indulgence it provides absolutely no evidence that could lead to such a specific conclusion. It is headline-grabbing nonsense.

The attitude to drink among the young in the UK is misguided, but deeply ingrained. It is present on T-shirts and birthday cards, it is parroted by stand-up comedians and media celebrities. We have hundreds of words and phrases for getting drunk, used with genuine approval by the vast majority of the population outside Whitehall. To change that will require far more than a cobbled-together set of rules to put the licensed trade in a straitjacket.

Low-cost bandwagon

It is not helped by another trade publication seeking to jump on the low-cost bandwagon, as if that is the main problem about young drinkers and alcohol abuse. To divide the licensed trade in half, although attractive to hard-pressed licensees, is in my view counter-productive. The licensing laws apply across the board and putting more pressure on one sector will not help the other sector to survive.

Demonising alcohol and those who sell it is a short-term measure designed to show that the Government is "taking action" and "clamping down", but cannot see past the end of its nose when it comes to a long-term strategy.

Where is the money, the support and the dedication to changing those attitudes among the young? The Chief Medical Officer should be in the forefront of alcohol education and as passionate about a new anti-boozing, pro-socialising culture as he was about other serious harm to young people.

The knock-on effects of a unit pricing in legal terms could create difficulties in all sections of the trade when it comes to promotions aimed at moderate drinkers and those on low incomes.

It has the potential to undermine the sort of deals that Ian Payne of Town & City highlighted recently in the Morning Advertiser. It is no easy fix, and, once again, those in authority have talked the talk without really thinking how it could be achieved in practice. In spite of all the ballyhoo from Scottish Minister Kenny MacAskill, I predict that many of the proposals outlined for Scottish licensing, including minimum pricing, will have to be amended or curtailed when the reality of licensing reform hits home.

Perhaps amid the turmoil of trade body upheaval, with the British Beer & Pub Association at last realising that it has been a toothless pussy cat for the past decade in PR and political terms, rolling over on licensing reform and barely putting up a fight on the anti-alcohol message, there could emerge a more forthright champion of the value of British pubs and the social benefits that they create and sustain.

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