Cameron is not going to solve Britain's drinking problem

Feb 16, 2012

Brits have a long, troubled relationship with alcohol, which new laws are unlikely to change

DAVID CAMERON has called binge drinking and alcohol abuse in Britain a “scandal”, one that is costing the NHS £2.7bn a year. The Prime Minister mooted a range of proposals to tackle the issue, including US-style “drunk tanks” - cells to house people while they sober up - and mobile casualty units. A government ban on the sale of alcohol below cost price will also be introduced in April. But does Britain really have a drinking problem, and if so, will these measures do anything to help it sober up?

Symptoms not the cause
Alcohol consumption has been falling steadily for the best part of a decade, says The Daily Telegraph. Yet binge drinking remains a serious social problem. “A significant minority continue to drink recklessly” – to the detriment not only of their own health, but frequently that of others.

Unfortunately, some of the measures proposed to deal with the problem seem to fall into the category of the “eye-catching initiatives”, adds the Telegraph. “Drunk tanks” (once called police cells) and “booze buses” (mobile casualty units) may grab the headlines, but “they target the symptoms of the problem, not the cause”.

Binge drinking is a class issue
So David Cameron tries to divert our attention from the mess he is making of the country by announcing an anti-binge drinking strategy, says Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian. You’d think someone from the Bullingdon Club “might question his wisdom in piping up on the subject”.

The tactic he favours - making cheap drink less cheap - shows where his heart lies, adds Lezard. “It is the lower orders he has in his sights.” But Cameron’s disdain for “yob drinking” is simply displaced aversion for a deeper malaise for which he is responsible, as his policies damage the lives of ordinary people. “A happy and healthy society doesn't need oblivion to deaden the pain of living in it.”

What about raising alcohol prices?
There are some superficially reasonable arguments against the introduction of a minimum unit price for alcohol, says an editorial in The Independent. The market should find its own level - hiking prices penalises all drinkers, not just the problematic ones. “But such points count for nothing against the wider social costs of super-cheap booze.”

Libertarians opposed the smoking ban when it was introduced, says Steve Richards in The Independent. Some protested that it discriminated against working-class people who wanted to smoke in their clubs. There are similar arguments about raising the price of alcohol, “but when behaviour starts to improve, we will wonder why the controls were not used before”.

We all need to face up to our problem
Britain has a paradoxical relationship with alcohol, says Alastair Campbell in The Times. Overall alcohol consumption has fallen, and pubs are closing. But alcohol-related health problems are rising, and people are buying more cheap alcohol at supermarkets and drinking more at home. Government regulation alone won’t change this. Ultimately, “we all have to assess our relationship with alcohol”.

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