I was going to spend part of today’s sickbed sojourn writing a blog about the Lib Dem conference, but Chief Constable Adrian Lee’s remarks that Britain needs to take a long hard look at its drinking culture, not least because fifty per cent of violent crime is now booze-fuelled, and ACPO’s clear effort to get the cost to policing of our drinking culture up the political agenda, have changed my mind. Instead, below is a rerun of the piece I did at the weekend. If any journalists are reading, please do not allow the industry away with the argument just made on BBc Breakfast that there is no evidence Minimum Unit Pricing reduces alcohol misuse and its negative impact. There is. And do not let them claim they share the interests of the police here – the police do not spend £800m a year promoting drink.
Adrian Lee’s intervention comes at a good time. Mid party conference season – and the parties should be pressed for their views on this, and the issue of alcohol must surely be addressed by all three leaders in their conference speeches. New student year time, as the drink companies make sure a new generation have plenty of access to cheaply available irresponsible drinking. And Champions League time, which is when the marketing tsunami steps up a notch. Note how the Heineken promos sometimes blend with MasterCard so that angelic MasterCard mascot is still on screen as we’re thinking about Heineken. Not that children and young people are ever targeted.
Re availability, as you go around your business today, count the number of places where alcohol is sold. Unless you are in one of the national parks, you will lose count pretty quickly.
Have had a few bids for interviews about Chief Constable Lee’s remarks. Genuinely no can do, and nobody would want to hear my voice right now, but I do think some of the arguments below are relevant to the argument and debate Adrian Lee has called for. I have no idea if his idea of ‘drunk tanks’ – cooling off places where the drunk can be placed and then charged for any costs incurred – is practicable, or whether there might be unintended health policy consequences. But he is right that this is a live and growing issue and Britain needs to grip it, and ACPO are right that price, availability and promotion are the keys to creating the problem, and so also the keys to the solution.
Two decades have passed since I last attended a Tory Party conference. It was 1994, the year that former Labour leader John Smith’s death led to me crossing the fence from journalism to politics in going to work for his successor Tony Blair.
This year I will be braving the Tory annual gathering again, neither as journalist nor political aide, but as a campaigner taking the same message I intend to take to Labour’s conference, namely that Britain is not doing enough to combat the damage done to individuals, families and communities by alcohol.
There is, I know, nothing worse than a convert and it is true that my own troubled relationship with alcohol, and the experience of a full blown psychotic breakdown that it helped inspire, forms much of my thinking on this issue. But there are a few facts that all of us should at least reflect on, and which I wish to impress upon politicians on both sides.
Liver disease is the only major cause of death in Britain which is rising, with liver cirrhosis fatalities in Britain up five fold since 1970, whereas France, Spain and Italy have gone in the opposite direction.
Last year saw 1.2million hospital admissions directly attributed to alcohol in England alone, doubled over a decade and rising, on current trends to 1.5m by the end of this Parliament. The total cost to the NHS of alcohol is £3.5billion.
Though we spend this small fortune on the consequences of excessive drinking, we spend a relative pittance treating thecauses- £91million on alcohol treatment, compared with £2billion for treatment of problem drug users. Yet there are estimated to be 1.6million problem drinkers in England, over five times more than there are dangerous drug users. I do not underestimate the dangers of drugs, but anyone who has ever sat in a courtroom knows that alcohol is the bigger problem, spilling into domestic violence, family breakdown, street disorder, stretched police and A and E budgets.
I have been studying the issue in more detail to research a novel, My Name Is, about a young girl’s descent into alcoholism. I chose a woman, and wrote as a woman, having heard Southampton liver specialist Dr Nick Sheron say that whereas once his patients were ninety per cent men, now the split is fifty fifty, not perhaps he equality women need or want, but a sign of a significant societal change which has already taken place.
The big change is the normalisation of alcohol at every level of society – think Pimms, champers, aperitif and digestif at the top end, ‘work hard play hard’ among professional middle classes, cheap supermarket booze at home or in the street for those short of cash, and mums of all classes thinking they ‘deserve’ a drink when the kids have gone to bed.
Publicans say they have never been under more pressure, and pubs, with all their social checks and balances, are closing at the rate of 26 per week. But fewer pubs does not mean less drink; cheap deals in supermarkets – not to mention petrol stations! – an explosion in wine as the middle class drink of choice, alongside a £800million tsunami of marketing and advertising, have seen to that. In a recent study children – who are supposed to be sheltered from alcohol promotion – recognized alcohol adverts more than they did those for ice cream and cakes. As for the rule that adverts should not suggest a link between alcohol and social or sexual success, just watch them to see how often it is broken.
If you watch as much football as I do, you notice trends: a booze ad, then a gambling ad, then a payday loans ad. Might there be a link between the three? When the England football team played recently, hoardings around the pitch told us that Carlsberg was ‘the official beer of the England team.’ The American PGA has an ‘official vodka’ sponsor. Whisky sponsors are in sports as varied as Formula One, rugby, golf, polo and rowing. FA Cup sponsored by Budweiser. Champions League sponsored by Heineken (when they’re not product placing with James Bond). The Guinness Premiership. Wine is big in cricket and its coverage. They do not do it for their health, or for philanthropy. And when Australian cricketer David Warner apologized for his boozed up attack on England’s Joe Root in a late night bar, was I alone in noting the irony of the beer advert on his shirt?
As a problem drinker I know that you can only begin to solve the problem when you admit to it. It is the same for a problem drinking country which is what we are, and how we are increasingly seen abroad.
Russia of all people did it and has had some success in lowering rates of alcoholism with a mix of price rises, availability controls and a ban on TV, radio, billboard, Internet and public transport advertising. In France rugby fans watch the H Cup not the Heineken Cup because any linkage between sport and alcohol is banned – Ireland is thinking of following suit – and advertising strictly regulated. There is a total advertising ban in Norway, in Sweden a ban on strong alcohol advertising, and a ban on Google alcohol ads in countries as varied as Poland, Finland and Vietnam. Parts of Australia have street drinking bans. In one area of Australia a local minimum price hike led to a 19.4per cent reduction. Where minimum unit pricing has been tried in British Columbia a ten per cent price increase led to a one third fall in deaths attributed to alcohol. None of the education and awareness campaigns favoured by the industry can claim such results. Nor can Labour’s relaxation of the licensing laws, which I do not believe has led to the more ‘Continental’ relaxed drinking style argued for them at the time.
David Cameron did at least admit to the problem, and proposed following Alex Salmond’s SNP with minimum unit pricing for England. But an industry worth £37.7billion a year, which supports two million jobs and contributes £16.3billion to the public finances, was never going to let that happen without a fight, and the government backed down.
No politician wants to be a killjoy. But alcohol abuse is no longer the exception it has become a norm. At the party conferences I will be supporting Alcohol Concern’s call for a minimum 50p unit price, and raising levels of treatment from the current 6percent of dependent drinkers to 15 percent. Small steps but they require big politicians to back them not back away.
Recently I was discussing alcohol with a group of international students. A Greek student at the LSE told the story of his first Friday night here, when he asked a British student what he planned to do for the evening.
‘I am going to get smashed out of my brain.’ said the Brit. The Greek looked confused. ‘How do you know?’ he asked.
I might suggest he joins me at the party conferences.
* My Name Is, published by Hutchinson £18.99