David Cameron has labelled the British culture of drunkenness a “scandal”, and the Daily Mail has described binge drinking as “creating a generation of aggressive and out-of-control women”.
If the scaremongers are to be believed, Britain is sinking into a bog of
alcoholism of the sort depicted by William Hogarth in the 18th century.
Not only is it apparently unsafe to walk the streets on a Saturday night
without being accosted by the human debris of our binge-drinking
culture, but the medical treatment of those facing the long-term
consequences of hitting the sauce is said to be slowly bankrupting the
The latest plan, perhaps inspired by the approach taken to illegal drugs
over the past 40 years, is to “get tough” and “crackdown” on so-called
problem boozers. With this in mind, the government is considering hitting drinkers in the wallet with a minimum price for a unit of alcohol.
The idea behind the minimum price is to dissuade the public from loading
up on drink before hitting the town and getting even more legless. The
proposal is backed by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, the Alcohol Health Alliance UK and the British Medical Association.
Scotland has already introduced a 50p minimum price and, this week, the Coalition announced a 10-week consultation on the issue after a Government-backed report recommended a price of 45p for a unit of alcohol.
Hyperbole aside, however, minimum pricing may not be the magic pill it’s
cracked up to be. The evidence to suggest that the solution to
Britain's apparent drink problem is to price people off alcohol is
flimsy at best.
While no doubt appealing to those who write the familiar headlines
depicting an out-of-control horde of drinkers laying waste to British
high streets every Saturday night, the statistics appear to show that
the country’s drink problem (if it exists at all) lies beyond the reach
of mere price controls.
According to the Office for National Statistics,
average weekly consumption of alcohol in 2010 was highest among those
who worked in middle class professions and lowest among those in routine
and manual occupations. Despite the lurid tabloid depictions of the
dreaded “out of control” women, the statistics also showed that
professional women drank on average 9.2 units of alcohol a week compared
with those in manual occupations who drank 6.2 units a week.
When it comes to age, adults aged over 45 were three times more likely to drink alcohol every day than younger people.
You may want to go back and read the last two paragraphs again. The
people that are supposed to be getting loaded on cheap Alcopops every
weekend; those the tabloids and the Government want to price off the
booze – you know, the working classes – aren’t, as it happens, drinking
anywhere near as much as their middle class counterparts.
There’s a certain irony in the fact that, in the years to come, it may
be working class folk who are footing the drink-induced health bills of,
not the Vicky Pollards of this world, but those with a class background
that’s closer to that of her creators – the middle classes.
In actual fact, not only are media portrayals of a descent into
nationwide alcoholism an excuse to sneer at pictures of half cut women
and the lower orders who apparently no longer know their place, but
they’re also grossly misleading, for alcohol consumption among Britons
has been decreasing – and decreasing quite significantly – for a number
Between 2005 and 2010, the average weekly alcohol consumption per adult
decreased by almost a third, from 14.3 units to 11.5 units. Among men,
average alcohol consumption decreased from 19.9 units to 15.9 units a
week and for women the figure reduced from 9.4 units to 7.6 units.
The data was released earlier this year and to the credit of certain
sections of the press the socio-economic differentials were picked up
on. However, the data that showed a widespread decrease in alcohol
consumption, if not exactly hushed up, didn't attract anywhere near the
number of headlines the lurid descriptions of binge drinkers tend to.
And there were certainly no accompanying photos of a country shunning
the bottle and soberly going about its business.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Britain does have a drink
problem. The next step is to identify those most in need of help in
controlling their alcohol intake. As the statistics show, these tend to
be middle-aged people from the middle classes – hardly the people who
are going to be discouraged by a few extra pounds on a bottle of wine.
Am I the only one who suspects, however, that minimum pricing is not
primarily about health, but rather about “cracking down” on that which
Middle England is forever fretting about cracking down on: the working
classes having too much of a good time?