Sunday 19 October 2008

Alcohol disorder, binge drinking

Binge drinking and alcohol fuelled disorder continue to be a problem. Many town centres are filled with unacceptable behaviour at weekends. Many pubs are ruined because the licensee feels they have no choice but to accept the trade. Pubs in general are given a bad name because of the unreasonable behaviour of a few and so nice people don’t like to go in them. The government is targeting this with various proposals including minimum pricing, restrictive advertising and alcohol duty, but as Beer Blether on his blog points out, the thing that will solve the problem is education.

Raising taxation of alcohol is convenient for the government. The majority of the population believe that alcohol is a problem. They accept alcohol taxation better than tax on fuel, income or general purchase tax, so the alcohol problem is a convenient smokescreen. Taxation is probably not going to reduce excessive drinking. It will if anything, result in the worst offenders saving up for a big "bender". The problem is caused by various social and cultural problems and the root cause needs to be tackled rather than simply whole sale alcohol restrictions.

A significant part of the antisocial UK drinking problem is to do with culture or arguably the lack of it. When I was starting out my drinking career there were two sides to it. There was the side that involved joining my mates going to the local town and getting hammered, and also hopefully getting laid (The consumption of alcohol as well as having an ugly mug successfully prevented any promiscuous activity in this writer's case). The other side involved a more diverse age group which sometimes included my parents and was always much more civilised. Any unacceptable behaviour was frowned upon and even if my parents were not there they often got to know about it.

This late adolescent behaviour is normal; perhaps it has been one of the only normal things I have done in my life. The problem is that although there is a natural desire to carry out this youthful exploration of adult behaviour there are less checks and balances these days. The influence of a broad age range of community within the pub provided that check and balance.

At one time, drinking and remaining civilised was the sign of being a grown up. Being aggressive, rude, stupid or throwing up was seen as not being able to hold your drink. Now it seems it is acceptable to behave unsociably, because it’s all the fault of the alcohol, not the person drinking it. There is a culture of being expected to be drunk if you are having a night out. This is also fuelled by the industry promoting increased consumption through various activities, most notably happy hours but also suppliers encouraging increased purchasing by pubs on the grounds of economies of scale. There is little in reality about promotion of drinks because of the added value of their quality, but that would not benefit the big manufacturers and associated distributors. This is where real ale could really take centre stage. It IS THE responsible drink. People drink it to enjoy the drink, not some hazy removal from reality that is simply a stone throw from drug abuse. We need to make it cool to appreciate the flavours of a drink rather than it’s ability to get you pissed.

Then there's the Portman Group mentioned elsewhere, which I believe is an attempt to cover up what the big drinks companies are doing. I'm not into conspiracy theories, but damage limitation is being exercised here by this industry sponsored group. I have no confidence that this initiative will do anything to help the situation.

A significant backwards step these days is the removal of the ability for sensible parents to educate children in the art of responsible drinking. Unless I completely misunderstand the 2003 licensing laws, there is now no provision for responsible adults to be permitted to purchase alcohol for anybody under the age of 16 for consumption in a pub. It is still permitted in the confines of your own home provided that the child is over the age of 5. The law used to allow adults to buy an alcoholic drink for somebody aged under 16 with the licensee’s permission providing consumption was supervised by a responsible adult and it was consumed in a room where alcohol was not dispensed.

A summary of the law is here. There is however some sound advice about how to deal with underage drinking as a parent here

I believe that if under aged people, in the company of their adults, were allowed a half of beer or a small glass of wine on the family outing to the pub, more people would grow up appreciating responsible drinking. Young people nowadays don’t have any respectable drinking experiences and once let loose on the adult world go mad like a kid in a candy shop or the proverbial bull in a china shop.

In a recent, and much critiqued piece by Jeff Picthall, he talks about peer pressure when out drinking in his home town. When trying to appreciate his beer his mates told him “Get it down your neck, you ponce”. This attitude is rife and no mate would truly try to ruin a person’s appreciation of fine beverage or wish liver damage on a friend. But this is the way it is and it won’t change without education.

The growth of the younger drinking scene, the culture of not having had a good night out unless you have made a pavement pizza or forgotten what you did, or preferably both, has increased the problem. The introduction of alcopops gave teenagers the opportunity to drink without having to gain the acquired taste that is needed for more grown up drinks. Lager, as we who like to enjoy a drink for it's taste know, is drunk because it does not taste of anything, it’s a way of just getting drunk without the drink challenging the drinker. For me part of the struggle of growing up was learning to drink "bitter".

Pubs are now seen as customer focused. This is no bad thing but there is an increase of attitude from many customers; “c’mon mate, we’ve put loadsh ‘f money over zthu bar tonight, letths hav ‘nother one?”. Pointing out that they have had far too much already, it’s time to shut up, and they should go home is seen as poor customer care. Respect for licensees and a return to the time when a polite refusal was respected would do wonders. Modern customer focused approach to doing business has resulted in a lack of implementation of the right of the licensee to refuse service of any customer who is behaving in an inappropriate manner. Indeed, there is the right for that matter of refusal of service without reason, but due to various practicalities this is extremely hard to implement.

There are laws already in place to tackle alcohol related crime and they will work if enforced, we can't just leave it to the licensee to do this. Education, education, education as I think one politician said. The government was once happy to put money into a huge amount of anti smoking advertising. We now need greater sociable drinking awareness.

Drinking is fun. It can be a great relaxation. Much of the reason I believe less people are going to pubs is because many of the people who run them think that selling volume is the answer. This makes pubs full of drunks. Making sure the antisocial are not allowed in pubs makes them much nicer places to be and so nicer people will visit.

I need to point out that I found this a hard piece to write - I'm not quite happy with it but it's better than it was. I need to thank Ann for her constructive criticisms and help.


Tandleman said...

"Now it seems it is acceptable to behave unsociably, because it’s all the fault of the alcohol, not the person drinking it."

Spot on, as is the rest of your post. I think that the current issues with binge drinking and associated behavioural problems (which pre-date the change in licensing laws) are a symptom of a wider malaise within British society. You have to tackle the problems of society before you can change drinking attitudes.

I take Oldham Town Centre as an example. Widespread late licences were in use before so called 24 hour drinking came in. When I come out of the Oldham Coliseum Theatre on Saturday night, there is a heavy police presence, an ambulance waiting and the road has been pedestrianised to take care of the young people who stagger from one venue to the other. It has been like that for years. It is pretty sad really and no-one over thirty will be found anywhere near it, other than to pass through of necessity.

This all arose when LA's still controlled licensing, a point conveniently overlooked by the press and police! What the police ought to do is use the powers they have, but they don't.

The Urban Brewer said...

Great piece Dave.

On govt policy you are spot on - it's easy to tax and impose indiscriminate restrictions which have little real impact but have allowed successive govts to avoid dealing with the more challenging problems of changing the drinking culture.

I think there is a growing trend of quality ales becoming cool and I certainly see it down here in London. Breweries like Brewdog based in the North of Scotland are making some great beers and promoting them in a very contemporary manner while the wider range of styles available can also encourage people to move away from the mass market lagers and hopefully in doing so become more interested in quality and flavour rather than volume and thereby promote responsible drinking.

The Woolpack Inn said...

Thanks guys, I'm glad you liked it.

Anonymous said...

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All the articles are very interesting, they make you think!

Thank you,
this help me see other side
of alcohol..
also helped me to finish some homework..


Curmudgeon said...

I've only just come across this post by reading back through the archives, but I have to say it's one of the most thoughtful and sensible pieces on the subject I've read.

Encouraging people to drink responsibly is difficult, though, when so much current publicity seems to focus on telling them not to drink at all.

Lew Bryson said...

Excellent piece. I'm sorry to say that I've really only been reading what you have to say as comments on Jeff's blog; no more. I've linked in from mine, and will likely point directly to this post as well.

Here in the States, the anti-drink groups have inserted a phrase into public use: "alcohol and other drugs." I can't help thinking that if you tell people that alcohol is a drug, that you insist on it like that, you shouldn't be surprised when that's how they perceive and use it: as a drug. We did not have a particularly healthy drinking 'culture' in the States previously; this has done nothing to help. Were I a cynic, I might suspect that the push to associate "alcohol" with "drug" -- with foreknowledge of the perils that would bring -- was deliberate. Instead, I'd guess it was simple short-sightedness.

Again, great post. Thanks.