Will alcohol go the way of tobacco?

Another World Cup summer. As usual, the media spotlight falls not only on the pitch but on the pitchers of beer being downed by tipsy football fans. David Tucker, a member of the Independent Consultants Group (ICG) explores the trends that will dominate political debates on drinking.

David Tucker
David Tucker

As usual, a drunken minority of England fans will raise the question of whether this has nothing to do with football and is simply an extension of the ’British disease’ – binge drinking – that is a constant in some Mediterranean holiday resorts and High Streets after the bars have shut.

But is it still British? The first half of 2010 has brought disturbing reports from France and Italy that young people elsewhere are discovering the joys of bingeing. In France, there have been over fifty so-called apéros géants (’giant cocktail hours’) held outdoors across the country, organised on Facebook and centered on heavy drinking. During one apéro, a 21-year old fell to his death from a bridge after drinking a dozen glasses of spirits, shocking a country which is hardly a stranger to alcohol but which has a reputation for civilised drinking, not bingeing.

Meanwhile, in Rome, the authorities are having to confront gangs of thugs who, although politically motivated – hardly unusual in Italian youth culture – are, as The Observer reported on 6th June: ’swigging lager and looking for trouble in piazzas’…’as the old Italian fixation with maintaining a bella figura gives way to pride in losing control’ and the ’generational shift’ towards getting drunk in public.

A new report on alcoholic drinks from YouGov Sixth Sense investigates current British attitudes, finding two thirds of adults agreeing to the statement that ’Binge-drinking is a British thing’. This is hardly news, but if the abuse of alcohol is shifting – quite dramatically, it seems – toward being a European phenomenon, then the long debate shifts to another level.

The Scottish Parliament is debating its ground-breaking Alcohol Bill in June 2010 with the likelihood that drink promotions will be banned and that retailers will pay a ’social responsibility fee’ if they sell alcohol. (Scottish take-home outlets are already banned from selling alcohol before 10am or after 10pm.) Minimum pricing may also be attempted – with Tesco and Morrisons among the retailers in favour – but opponents point out that price controls may be illegal under EU competition law.

A similar debate on alcohol has started at Westminster under the new coalition government but the same European dimension has to be considered. After all, it was EU pressure that led to the near-universal banning of smoking in public venues. Is the other big ’legal drug’ to be dealt the same draconian hand? One stricture could be prominent health warnings on alcohol packaging, similar to those on cigarette packets. This idea was favoured by 60% of the SixthSense respondents, with only 18% disagreeing.

The irony, perhaps, is that the UK already has some of the highest alcohol prices in Europe – minimum pricing would be a fillip for the booze cruises across the Channel – but this has never dampened the British binge drinking habit. Prohibition did not work in the USA and although the public – and government ministers, and even supermarkets – seem favourable towards a clampdown on alcohol, the SixthSense survey also concludes that ’alcohol remains popular despite the constant barrage of negative messages’ with ’no fewer than 95% of adults saying “It doesn’t hurt to have a drink from time to time” and 83% saying “It’s great to celebrate with a drink”.

So the jury remains out on the ’social lubrication’ provided by alcohol. For the time being, most of us will happily raise a glass to the World Cup winners, but stricter regulation is surely on the way, and anyone involved in the marketing of alcohol would do well to keep an ear open to the debates from Holyrood to Westminster and on to Brussels and Strasbourg.

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