Last Friday, the UK Government released its new Alcohol Strategy. It outlined plans to more strictly regulate late-night alcohol retail while signalling to the drinks industry that it should do more to tackle excessive consumption through voluntary agreements. However, it’s headline-grabbing provision was the introduction of minimum unit pricing to tackle binge drinking.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, minimum unit pricing represents a step change in policy approaches to alcohol by reframing it as ‘no ordinary commodity’. Champagne corks must be popping at the headquarters of the many alcohol health organisations who have long campaigned for just such a shift. Or perhaps not. Maybe they went for the Perrier … with a twist of lemon. Just this once.
The Strategy certainly signals a cooling of Government attitudes to the alcohol industry. The Prime Minister’s introduction is uncompromising: binge drinking has reached such proportions that radical action is needed even if it is unpopular with both business and sections of the public.
So why take the risk? Recent evidence confirms that overall consumption has been declining for a number of years, and the decline is sharpest in young drinkers, among whom attitudes towards public drunkenness appear to have become less accepting. And while liver disease rates have certainly shot up recently the current disease burden is probably more closely linked to changes in the 1980s and 1990s than the last five years.
The answer lies partly in the fact that problems of antisocial behaviour in the night time economy still persist, and it does a Government no harm to be seen to be doing something about badly behaved youth. It lies partly in the realisation that home drinking and ‘preloading’ alcohol from supermarkets are no longer issues government policy can afford to ignore; indeed the Strategy explicitly recognises that well-run pubs are part of the solution to alcohol problems. The lack of damage suffered by the Scottish National Party in supporting minimum pricing also suggests popular consensus is there to be won.
However, the willingness to take on the industry so explicitly may also lie in the Government’s awareness of how badly seemingly pro-trade alcohol policies damaged the previous administration.
In 2004, when New Labour published its first Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy, it was meant to be a showpiece of ‘evidence-based’ policy making, and a major research exercise was commissioned in preparation. However, while the final document foregrounded data illustrating how bad the problem was, it explicitly rejected the policies that health specialists involved in the research process had said were most effective in tackling excessive drinking. Specifically, it rejected the argument that pricing was directly linked to consumption, and the claim that overall levels of consumption needed to be reduced to tackle chronic harms. Instead, it accepted the dichotomous division between ‘moderate’ and ‘harmful’ drinkers; identified harmful drinkers as predominantly either alcoholics or young binge drinkers; and insisted education and voluntary partnership with industry were the best way of changing drinking cultures.
That rejection of population-based policies, alongside the liberalisation of retail controls under the 2003 Licensing Act, galvanised health campaigners. What is more, by foregrounding the data on harms the 2004 Strategy gave powerful (and eminently newsworthy) ammunition to those who sought to argue that something radical needed to be done. Over the following years, health campaigners harnessed the power of media concerns over youth binge drinking to promote a far broader policy agenda aimed at reducing overall consumption. New Labour alcohol policy came increasingly to be seen as irresponsible as medical experts – led by the indefatigable President of the Royal College of Physicians, Sir Ian Gilmore – joined journalists, NGOs and opposition politicians in kicking an increasingly unhinged-looking policy door.
An updated Strategy, launched in 2007, included a new programme of data-gathering on alcohol harms, but the figures that emerged ended up in headlines which only magnified the apparent naivety of Labour’s light-touch approach to alcohol regulation. From the mid-2000s onwards, Labour politicians could only watch as a their alcohol policy – once a shining hallmark of the party’s cosmopolitan modernism – turned into political Gorgon before their eyes.
In opposition, the Conservative Party made much political capital out of associating New Labour alcohol policy with what they dubbed ‘Broken Britain’, and on entering Government they were quick to ‘rebalance’ licensing law by introducing a series of amendments to the legislation. Those measures, along with continuing increases in beer duty angered swathes of the pub trade. Minimum unit pricing, by contrast, is supported by many publicans as it targets supermarket discounts rather than prices at the bar. In adopting it as policies, the Coalition has not only driven a wedge between different elements of the drinks trade, but appears to have calculated that irritation among some major producers will count for less than the combined ire of the nation’s medical establishment when it comes to selling themselves as the party of responsible government.
It certainly seems that the Coalition have learnt that if you are going to make enemies on this issue then, in the battle for public credibility, it is better to be ranged against the drinks industry – for all its economic might – than the doctors, police and charities who, following the 2004 Strategy, lined up to accuse New Labour of sacrificing the public good to appease big alcohol business.
In the most recent nomenclature of health harm, levels of alcohol consumption are described as either reduced, increasing or high risk. It is a description that certainly holds for alcohol policies. The Coalition will hope minimum unit pricing sits on the lower end of this scale: they know all too well how damaging an alcohol-induced political hangover can be.