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The end of Boozy Britain?


On 20/11/15 by Daisy Blench (Policy Manager - Responsibility)


I recently had the opportunity to speak at a debate as part of the Institute of Ideas, ‘Battle of Ideas’ festival held at the Barbican, a two day series of lively debates and conversations aiming to ‘encourage free thinking and open-ended public discussion’.


The debate’s title was ‘The end of Boozy Britain?’ and amongst other things the ‘teasers’ for the session asked us; ‘is the decline of drinking really something to be celebrated?’


I would say not, if we are talking about overall alcohol consumption – more people drinking overall does not necessarily equate to higher levels of harm if people are drinking sensibly.


Although per capita alcohol consumption has declined by around 19% since 2004, it is perfectly possible for this to go up, alongside declining levels of alcohol related harm.


This got me thinking – so often is overall alcohol consumption used a proxy for alcohol related harm in the media (and sometimes even by industry) that we sometimes lose sight of the moderate majority to whom drinking is a normal and pleasurable part of their lives.


Take the sector that myself and many others work in. Beer and pubs are a hugely important aspect of people’s lives, of local communities and of the economy and they provide something unique which we should be hugely proud of here in the UK which many from abroad want to experience.


It seems like a cliché but many life events happen in pubs - people meet partners, celebrate birthdays, wedding and christenings, share a drink or dinner and chat with friends. Working here in the City of London, and seeing people working long hours, often with little chance for a break and often in demanding jobs, my favourite bit of the day is always relaxing in one of the great pubs around here after work and seeing some of those same people unwinding, chatting and bonding with friends and colleagues over a drink.


And of course, people can choose whether or not to drink alcohol in the pub. There are now more lower-alcohol and non-alcohol drinks choices than ever before. However, alcohol for many of us is a part of socialising and relaxing. Certain recent attempts to ‘denormalise’ alcohol seem to be part of a move to get rid of anything which can potentially be misused from our lives and I believe that ultimately we will be worse off for it.


If this is my ‘ode to one of the simple pleasures in life, then alongside appreciating the social benefits of moderate consumption for the vast majority we should be equally clear on the need to focus on the harms that alcohol can cause.


As mentioned, it's hugely important to draw a clear distinction between alcohol consumption and misuse which allows a much sharper focus on the problems that remain. And of course alcohol harm is in no one’s interests, least of all those that brew beer and run pubs, and therefore the decline in recent years of a number of alcohol 'harms' is good news for all of us.


With an annual tax bill of £13 billion, the beer and pub sector more than pays the costs associated with managing the minority that go beyond pleasurable enjoyment of alcohol as well as contributing economically and socially in many ways.


Brewers and pubs also have a strong track record of involvement in alcohol responsibility initiatives from launching the Challenge 21 age verification campaign, which has contributed to a huge culture change in the acceptability of underage drinking, to ensuring that the vast majority of beer products on the market have health messaging on the label, to increasing the range of lower-strength beers available to encourage a responsible drinking culture.


However, I would stress the word encourage. Sadly there will always be those that seriously misuse alcohol to the detriment of their own health and others. However, ultimately treating people like adults is crucial. Let's not treat those who do like to have a pint or two after work as though they are doing something wrong. Whilst providing people with enough information is important, ultimately they should be free to make their own choices about whether or not to drink.


The recent coverage and debate over the Chief Medical Officer's review of the lower-risk drinking guidelines and the potential that these will be lowered has raised the question of how consumers would respond to any changes in the advice. Ultimately it will be important that any change in the advice is evidence based and clearly communicated to consumers to ensure that the advice remains useful and relevant.


The debate gets so polarised sometimes that things can get out of perspective. Refreshingly, this event, although involving a lively discussion about the importance and relevance of pubs and problems relating to excessive drinking, was more nuanced. There seemed to be some agreement that now the ‘moral panic’ around alcohol has dissipated somewhat, we can begin to have more grown-up discussion about how to target harm and the reasons why people misuse alcohol.


It would be great to see this consensus translated into sensible policy making both nationally and locally and allowing us to retain the enjoyment of alcohol and of our great British pubs for the majority but take a clear and targeted approach to tackling alcohol harm where it occurs.



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