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Banning Alcohol Ads?

09/09/2009

Banning alcohol ads: the tail wagging the dog, surely?

European societies have always used alcohol as part of their ritual and relaxation. This is not a bad thing. Historically, alcoholic drinks have probably saved more lives than they have ruined – by sheer dint of the fact that they weren’t polluted water. Even today, a little alcohol in the diet of the over 50s is thought to be advisable.

Yet, whenever people – irrespective of age and income – have easy access to cheap and plentiful strong alcoholic drinks, especially at times when social restrictions have been relaxed, problems of alcohol-related violence and illness result.

Close communities and strong social conformity may have limited alcohol fueled disruption and disease in the past, but diversity, TV and the internet have put these beyond reach. So, what should we do?

The first thing to say is “Don’t panic. We have been here before and come through it.” The gin dens of London in the 18th century caused at least as much suffering and crime as happy hour at the Pig and Whistle. The last thing we need now is another moral panic. But we do need to act.

The British Medical Association suggests that we should ban all alcohol advertising. But banning things is not what we are about in this country, or have I misunderstood something?  (Perhaps we ought to ban chocolate advertising? Could I claim compensation for lap band surgery from Cadbury/Kraft…?)

Banning ads won’t deal with the problem, when the corner shop sells three bottles of 13% wine or a bottle of scotch for £10…next shelf along from the sugar and the Smarties… will it?

Others are suggesting that we should put scare warnings onto the labels of beer cans and whisky bottles. I think the jury is out on this one. There is no good evidence that these labels had more than minimal impact when they were blazoned across fag packets and tobacco ads in the government’s ‘War on Smokers’.

We need to think about how we came to be in this mess in the first place. Liberalisation of licensing laws has meant that sweetshops and pharmacies can sell alcohol as well as supermarkets and garages. This is simply wrong-headed. The market has been allowed to operate in an almost unregulated manner for retail sales of alcohol, while conventional bars and pubs have a huge historic burden of inherited restrictions. It is not a level playing field and the dedicated off-license scarcely stands a chance.

We can learn a lot by looking across the North Sea at what has been done for many years in Scandinavia. Denmark, Norway and Sweden have different systems of alcohol control and they are not the UK, so we must tread carefully, but there is much that we can learn.

Alcohol is absolutely part of the culture in these societies, but it is priced sensibly. Ale (low alcohol lager) is cheapish, wines are moderately expensive and spirits are eye-wateringly so. For the locals… Visiting Brits find social drinking in the Nordic countries extremely expensive, but then local people don’t drink the strengths and volumes of booze that we get through over here.

We can learn from this, surely?

While the mismanaged market has been responsible for our mess, a well regulated alcohol control system has delivered lower problems of disorder and disease among our neighbours.

Without opting for the Swedish ‘systembolaget’ or government run off-license, the market reforms which have allowed supermarkets to sell alcohol at below cost alongside endless small high street booze shops need to be changed.

It is time for a return to the dedicated off-license. Licensees whose sole business is the sale of alcohol and tobacco are going to take their responsibilities far more seriously than others for whom alcohol sales are simply a way of getting punters into their shop in order to sell them other goods.

We need to re-define the limits for alcohol classes and introduce progressive alcohol taxation which guides consumers to lower alcohol drinks.

If something claims to be a beer, it should contain less than 3% alcohol and be cheap, while the duty on strong beers (3-5%) should rise progressively.

Similarly, a redefinition of wines (10-12% alcohol) and strong wines (12-15%) would be accompanied by increasing duty rates.

Finally, there is a need to substantially raise the minimum price for fortified wines (above 15%) and spirits. It would not be unreasonable, given the disproportionate damage done by distilled drinks, to price them at no less that £20 a bottle.

Oh, and if anyone thinks that current concerns about strong alcohol are just bleeding hearts agonizing about yobs and alkies, think again. This is about helping us all to have a healthy approach to drinking. The idea that alcoholics are guzzling gin by the bottle is simply wrong. The drink of choice among destructive drinkers these days is extra strong lager or cider.

A new government, whatever its hue, will face public health and community safety concerns about both current and future impacts of alcohol on society.

They don’t need to ban anything, but they will need to look again at the unintended consequences of recent market liberalisation.

It is important that:

§   Alcohol sales are taken out of supermarkets and corner shops

§   Drink type boundaries are very clearly re-defined and

§   Progressive taxation is introduced to substantially and disproportionately increase the price of fortified wines and spirits.

But, in the end, perhaps this is the tail wagging the dog. We don’t ask why people drink so much. Perhaps by addressing the pain and anomy in 2009 Britain, we would achieve a truly lasting solution.

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From → Health, Policy, Research

3 Comments
  1. Hey very nice blog!!….I’m an instant fan, I have bookmarked you and I’ll be checking back on a regular….See ya

  2. Hey, I found your blog in a new directory of blogs. I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, anyway cool blog, I bookmarked you. 🙂 🙂

  3. There is obviously a lot to know about this. There are some good points here.

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