Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Fallacy of Social Control

Hogarth's 18th Century portrayal of drinking
Never in our history has there been so much state intervention in individual lives as a form of social control. The present Prime Minister came into office with a pledge to fix "broken Britain". The latest "moral crusade" is to deal with "binge drinking".

To do this the Government is proposing a minimum alcohol price of 40 pence per unit of alcohol, and to ban the sale of multi-buy discount deals in supermarkets, to come into effect by 2014.

The Government seems to have been persuaded by evidence from crime and health experts, who say that the 40 pence a unit minimum price could mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year and 9,000 fewer alcohol related deaths over the next decade. History does not necessarily back up the alleged promises of such interventions. This is an attempt at a "quick fix solution" to an age old problem, and in addition, it seeks to punish the responsible majority, while trying to address the problems caused by the irresponsible minority.

About four years ago, BBC News carried a report on a paper published by Professor Peter Borsay of Aberystwyth University called, "Binge drinking and moral panics: historical parallels?". His paper looked at the "gin craze" of the early 18th Century and the similarities with today. He argued that direct comparisons with drinking behaviour have been over-stretched, saying, "it is not drinking behaviour that merits the comparison, but the moral panics that characterised both periods, fuelled by pressure groups, the media and perceptions of government complacency". In my view we have this moral panic today, and a Government that feels that it has to be seen to be doing something.

But what is binge drinking?  It's often described as "drinking alcoholic beverages with the primary intention of becoming intoxicated by heavy consumption of alcohol over a short period of time". The problem for me is how 'heavy consumption' is defined. The 1995 Government report called "Sensible Drinking" redefined binge drinking as drinking twice the recommended daily limit in a single session. Martin Cornell in his blog highlights the concern with this type of definition when he says, "Since 'twice the recommended daily limit' could be as low as three or three and a half pints of beer for men and two and a half medium-sized glasses of wine for women, this suddenly put an awful lot of ordinary people's ordinary nights out into the 'binge' category". This is important when you are talking about the scale of the problem, and actually determining how many people are causing issues for the police and health services.

It's hard to get accurate, consistent figures and this is why we have such moral panic setting in yet again. Only a small minority of the population, 18% ever binge drink, which means that 82% don't. Can it be right that the 82% get punished for some misdemeanors  by the 18%? (Don't forget, not all classified binge drinkers are a drain on the police or health services). I also think that it's important to remember that binge drinking and anti-social behaviour is not a modern phenomenon; it is steeped in history, and ingrained into the mindset of many. As for supermarket offers, it is worth noting that a South Wales publican in 1836 was offering three drinks for the price of one as an early morning special offer. As for youth drinking, the novelist Daniel Owen in 1891 complained that pubs "were now filled with empty-headed youths, not old enough to shave, drinking like animals and going home in a worse state than any animal". It's also interesting to note that in relation to binge drinking, members of the Ebbw Vale Temperance Society, were allowed in the 1930's two pints of beer a day, similar to the current recommended maximum for men of 3 - 4 units per day. However, problems arose when some members of the Society decided to save up their weekly beer allowance in order to knock back 14 pints at the weekend. Needless to say, the Society soon moved to the view of total abstinence.

One final example.  In the late 1930's, Tom Harrison wrote "The Pub and the People", in which he refers to the 1854 annual report of the Worktown (Bolton) Temperance Society, which said "That drunkenness is painfully prevalent in the Borough a thousand facts bear most painful testimony. Men and women staggering along the public streets, fights brawls of the most barbarous character". So there is a long history of binge drinking and associated anti-social behaviour, but how is the cause of it described today? It is claimed that people are consuming cheap alcohol purchased in off-licences and supermarkets before going out to pubs and clubs, meaning that they are well on the way to being drunk before they drink further on their night out. I'm sure that this happens, but what is the solution?

One thing that I'm sure of is that setting a minimum price for alcohol in the belief (hope) that it will address the problem of binge drinking will not work. The wealthy will just absorb the cost, and the poor will cut back on other things. What makes people think that this will work? Has high taxation and fuel costs driven people off the roads? No. Has escalating tobacco taxes and smoking bans brought about a dramatic decrease in smoking? No. Has bringing in greater punishment for those caught using their mobile phones while driving brought more responsible driving? No. In fact, reports suggest that the use has increased since the legislation became stronger. So why think that alcohol price control will have the desired effect? It won't. So what is the solution?

An accurate picture with less drama would help, so that we can understand the level of what we are talking about. There may well be a number of options, and one of those is rarely talked about. One of the sanest comments on this matter that I've read in a long time was to be found in last Monday's edition of the Leicester Mercury. There a retired policeman wrote about pubs and clubs accepting people who had already been drinking in their homes. He said, "Unless the law has changed with the new licensing arrangements, I understand that it is an offence to sell alcohol to someone who is drunk or for someone to purchase alcohol for such a drunken person". From his experience as a policeman, he says, "There is virtually no enforcement of this legislation". David Cameron talks about giving licence holders greater powers, but they're not needed, but even if they were, the current legislation is not enforced, why should we have any confidence that new legislation would be?

The local authority responsible for the granting of the licences has the power to revoke or just suspend the licence of premises. To the retired policeman, if premises are visited regularly and action taken against the licensee if alcohol is sold to people who appear to be drunk, the trade would put its house in order. "There would then be no point in drinking before your night out as you would be refused alcohol in the pub or club if sales were prohibited to someone already apparently drunk". If this was operated seriously, there would be fewer drunks on the streets (those who just drink cheap alcohol at home would stay at home), resulting in fewer drunken accidents and assaults, less treatment required in hospital and no need for police officers being required to ensure safety of hospital staff and patients. Isn't this worth a try before using prices as a form of social control? It has the benefit of targeting those who are perceived as being the problem, rather than thrashing those who are not.

I agree with our retired policeman. "I find it abhorrent that we are all to be punished because of the lack of enforcement of the existing legislation". 

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