Protz: Statistics reveal we can handle our drink

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Kate nicholls, Health select committee, Alcoholic beverage

Sensible younger drinkers: consumption of alcohol is falling fastest in the 16 to 24-year-old age group
Sensible younger drinkers: consumption of alcohol is falling fastest in the 16 to 24-year-old age group
The British and alcohol: what images spring to mind? Young people staggering around city centres on Saturday nights, fighting or falling down, and making pavement pizzas in the streets. Some of them engaged in fisticuffs with the Old Bill or ending up in casualty.

We’ve seen it thousands of times on TV screens or in the sensational sections of the press. But does it square with reality?

I’ve been puzzled by the gap between those images and the proven fact that the British in general are consuming less alcohol. Beer drinking has been declining since the 1980s.

Wines sales were down last year for the first time in living memory and most Scotch whisky goes for export. And yet the image persists of a nation of hopeless alkies drinking ourselves on to Skid Row.

Where does the truth lie? The answer is with Kate Nicholls. She is the strategic affairs director of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR), the organisation that represents the smaller independent companies that run pubs, bars and restaurants. She has succinctly and brilliantly put the “problem drinking” issue into context.

Her starting point is the appearance before the Parliamentary Health Select Committee of Public Health Minister Anne Milton earlier this month. If you’ll pardon the pun, we got from the minister and the MPs a sober assessment of the nation’s drinking habits.

Milton said Government figures show that nine million people exceed the recommended guidelines for the consumption of alcohol. But that has to be seen against the background of a poll conducted by YouGov that reported that 65% of people always drink within the recommended guidelines — three to four units a day for men and two to three units for women.

That’s the equivalent of a pint and a half of 4% ABV beer or a 175ml glass of wine. And, according to YouGov, 21% never drink at all.

Now the cynics among you may say that, confronted by a YouGov pollster, many people would play down their drinking habits. So, says Nicholls, let’s take the Government’s own figures. They show that fewer and fewer people are drinking to excess.

The proportion of men drinking more than the recommended guidelines is down by 17% over the past 10 years, while the number of women is down by 19%.
Overall alcohol consumption for that 10-year period is down by 20%; 43 million people drink sensibly and never exceed the recommended guidelines, and 53 million people have at least three alcohol-free days every week.

Perhaps the most startling statistic to emerge from the Government’s own figures involves the habits of young people in the age group of 16 to 24 years old. You would expect that — given the frequent images shown by the Daily Mail and BBC’s Panorama — they are oblivious to the calls by the Government and health lobbyists to drink more sensibly.

The answer is: they are not. Consumption of alcohol is falling fastest among that group. Drinking more than the guidelines is down by a third among young men and a quarter for young women.

It’s also clear that the new licensing laws brought in by the last Government have worked. Still absurdly called ‘24-hour drinking’ by the more ignorant sections of the media, the ability of pub and bar owners to vary their opening hours has led to the end of the ‘11 o’clock swill’ that turned many town centres into no-go areas at weekends.

I have first-hand experience of this. I live in St Albans, which, with 55 pubs, was not a pleasant place to visit at weekends before the licensing laws changed.
Last Friday evening, my wife and I spent a pleasant couple of hours in a pub in the city centre. The pub was packed, but the atmosphere was congenial and on the way home we failed to encounter any gangs of feral young drinkers causing mayhem and going to hell in the well-known handcart.

As both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary agree that the safest and friendliest place to drink alcohol is the pub, why doesn’t the Government do more to champion the pub and encourage more people to drink there?

The YouGov poll shows that 70% of alcohol is now consumed at home. It’s the middle classes downing wine in their sitting rooms who are the heaviest drinkers, not the much-maligned ‘chavs’ who make the headlines.

People will return to the pub if the glaring gap between pub prices and supermarket prices is closed. That means minimum pricing and ending the dodge where high-street retailers can claim back VAT if they sell alcohol at cost or below cost.

It means following France and other European countries where VAT has been slashed on food and drink in bars and restaurants. It means considering — and this requires European Union agreement — that draught beer should be taxed at a lower level than packaged beer.

In short, we need a rescue package for the pub, as well as the nation’s collective liver. And hats off to Kate Nicholls for having the courage to say the unsayable: the Brits can handle their drink.

Related topics: Beer

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