Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tackling the drinking problem

Should the drinking age be raised and alcohol banned in public places?
By Nigel Morris, The Independent
Published: 16 August 2007

Why are we asking this now?
The murder of Garry Newlove, who was killed after he confronted a group of vandals outside his home in Cheshire, has prompted a plea by the county's Chief Constable for strong action to combat drinking among young people. Peter Fahy has called for the minimum drinking age to be raised from 18 to 21, for alcohol to be banned in most public places, for the price of beer and spirits to be raised and for tougher controls on the sale of drink.

Controversy also continues over the impact of the liberalisation in 2005 of the licensing laws, with Devon and Cornwall police this week reporting a 50 per cent rise in violent attacks in pubs and nightclubs since the reform.

How bad is the problem?
Anyone visiting the centre of a city or major town on a Friday or Saturday night is likely to be in little doubt that binge-drinking among young people is a serious problem. It is nothing new in British life. Riots broke out in the 1740s over the high taxes on gin, the Temperance Movement was founded in 1835 in response to fears over public drunkenness and tough licensing laws were passed in 1914 to stop the war effort being undermined by excess alcohol consumption.

However, the number of teenagers who drink regularly appears to have climbed sharply over the past two decades. Among 35 European nations, Britain had the third highest number of 15-year-olds (24 per cent) who said they had been inebriated at least 10 times in the past year. Teenage drinkers are consuming more alcohol and more often.

Increasing alcohol consumption is inevitably linked to crime and anti-social behaviour. There were 1,087,000 violent incidents in 2006-07 in which the victim believed their offender had been drinking, an increase of 6 per cent on the previous year.

Who is to blame for teenage drunkenness?
It is becoming relatively cheaper to get drunk, with alcohol now costing 54 per cent less in real terms than it did in 1980.

The introduction of cut-price happy hours in "vertical drinking" establishments and price-cutting competition between supermarkets have acted as a brake on the rising cost of alcohol. The popularity of drinks targeted at young adults - alcopops in the 1990s and high-strength bottled lager this decade - has drawn more youngsters into bars.

Despite successive enforcement campaigns, under-age drinkers appear to have few problems getting their hands on beer and spirits. Somerset police said yesterday that 67 per cent of pubs and clubs and more than a third of off-licences sold alcohol to children during an undercover operation. The police, however, can do little about adults buying alcohol for under-18s or about teenagers knocking back drink they find at home. And making alcohol more expensive or more difficult to acquire is tackling the problem's symptoms, rather than its causes. Are parents turning a blind eye to drinking by their children? And what messages are being sent out to our youth by the British tolerance, and arguably glamorisation, of drunkenness?

Has 24-hour licensing made a difference?
The 2005 Licensing Act enabled pubs, clubs, restaurants and off-licences to open around the clock, although in practice most have only applied for moderate increases to opening hours. Ministers argued that the move would help encourage the growth of a more civilised Continental-style cafe culture, while critics warned that levels of alcohol-fuelled trouble would rocket. The jury is out over the impact of the Act. The latest figures showed 940,522 violent crimes and cases of disorder and criminal damage were committed from 6pm to 6am in the year after licensed premises were allowed to open later, which is a negligible 0.7 per cent increase on the 933,701 recorded in the previous year.

Would raising the drinking age tackle the problem?
Mr Fahy argues that increasing the limit would send out a signal of society's determination to tackle drunkenness. The same radical conclusion was reached recently in a report by the left-leaning think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research. Alternatively, it called for teenage drinking to be controlled by a smart-card system.

Its author, Jasper Gerard, argued: "By raising the age threshold it is at least possible that those in their early and mid teens will not see drink as something they will soon be allowed to do, so therefore they might as well start doing it surreptitiously now. Instead they might come to see it as it should be: forbidden."

The Home Office Minister Meg Hillier firmly ruled out such a step yesterday, arguing that it would "demonise or prevent a lot of adults who are drinking quite responsibly".

Raising the limit would put Britain out of step with the rest of western Europe, where levels of drunkenness are lower but minimum drinking ages range between 14 and 18. The United States has a 21-year-old limit on buying alcohol, although some states allow consumption under that age. A limit of 19 applies in most of Canada and 18 in Australia.

Should we ban drinking in public places?
Local authorities have the power to outlaw alcohol consumption in designated areas and 100 councils have followed the lead of Coventry, which imposed the first ban 20 years ago. However, Mr Fahy wants to turn around the presumption of the law, requiring councils to apply for special permission to allow public drinking, modelling the move on the recently imposed smoking ban.

Again, a Government which has spoken of encouraging more civilised drinking has given a chilly response to the idea. Any politician who attempted to ban al fresco drinking would take a gamble. It could lead to the most unlikely people becoming criminalised - the family who have a bottle of beer with their picnic or the music fans who enjoy an open-air concert with a bottle of wine.

What is the Government doing?
There is no question the Government recognises it has a problem on its hands, although the extent to which it can influence a long-term social trend is clearly limited.

To the delight of tabloid newspapers that have denounced the new licensing laws, Gordon Brown has ordered a review of 24-hour drinking which will report by the end of the year. It is unlikely to find enough evidence to justify overturning the legislation.

A further Department of Health review into the cost of alcohol could respond to doctors' and campaigners' concerns by backing an increase in alcohol duties. Again it would be a brave politician that campaigns on increases in the price of a pint of beer or bottle of wine - even though the ill effects of alcohol cost society £20bn a year.

Should the legal drinking age rise?

* The move would send out a strong message of society's abhorrence of drunkenness
* Young adults would start drinking at an older age, with benefits for their health
* Banning teenagers from buying alcohol could cut alcohol-fuelled rowdiness

* It would be a nonsense when youngsters can marry at 18 or drive at 17
* No other western European nation bans alcohol until the age of 21 and most have lower drunkenness rates
* It would be unfair on the majority of young adults who drink responsibly and in moderation

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