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Cameron, Clegg and Miliband should listen to police and doctors re costs of booze

Posted on 15 September 2013 | 4:09pm

I was going to spend part of today’s sickbed sojourn writing a blog about the Lib Dem conference, but Chief Constable Adrian Lee’s remarks that Britain needs to take a long hard look at its drinking culture, not least because fifty per cent of violent crime is now booze-fuelled, and ACPO’s clear effort to get the cost to policing of our drinking culture up the political agenda, have changed my mind. Instead, below is a rerun of the piece I did at the weekend. If any journalists are reading, please do not allow the industry away with the argument just made on BBc Breakfast that there is no evidence Minimum Unit Pricing reduces alcohol misuse and its negative impact. There is. And do not let them claim they share the interests of the police here – the police do not spend £800m a year promoting drink.

Adrian Lee’s intervention comes at a good time. Mid party conference season – and the parties should be pressed for their views on this, and the issue of alcohol must surely be addressed by all three leaders in their conference speeches. New student year time, as the drink companies make sure a new generation have plenty of access to cheaply available irresponsible drinking. And Champions League time, which is when the marketing tsunami steps up a notch. Note how the Heineken promos sometimes blend with MasterCard so that angelic MasterCard mascot is still on screen as we’re thinking about Heineken. Not that children and young people are ever targeted.

Re availability, as you go around your business today, count the number of places where alcohol is sold. Unless you are in one of the national parks, you will lose count pretty quickly.

Have had a few bids for interviews about Chief Constable Lee’s remarks. Genuinely no can do, and nobody would want to hear my voice right now, but I do think some of the arguments below are relevant to the argument and debate Adrian Lee has called for. I have no idea if his idea of ‘drunk tanks’ – cooling off places where the drunk can be placed and then charged for any costs incurred – is practicable, or whether there might be unintended health policy consequences. But he is right that this is a live and growing issue and Britain needs to grip it, and ACPO are right that price, availability and promotion are the keys to creating the problem, and so also the keys to the solution.

Two decades have passed since I last attended a Tory Party conference. It was 1994, the year that former Labour leader John Smith’s death led to me crossing the fence from journalism to politics in going to work for his successor Tony Blair.

This year I will be braving the Tory annual gathering again, neither as journalist nor political aide, but as a campaigner taking the same message I intend to take to Labour’s conference, namely that Britain is not doing enough to combat the damage done to individuals, families and communities by alcohol.

There is, I know, nothing worse than a convert and it is true that my own troubled relationship with alcohol, and the experience of a full blown psychotic breakdown that it helped inspire, forms much of my thinking on this issue. But there are a few facts that all of us should at least reflect on, and which I wish to impress upon politicians on both sides.

Liver disease is the only major cause of death in Britain which is rising, with liver cirrhosis fatalities in Britain up five fold since 1970, whereas France, Spain and Italy have gone in the opposite direction.
Last year saw 1.2million hospital admissions directly attributed to alcohol in England alone, doubled over a decade and rising, on current trends to 1.5m by the end of this Parliament. The total cost to the NHS of alcohol is £3.5billion.

Though we spend this small fortune on the consequences of excessive drinking, we spend a relative pittance treating thecauses- £91million on alcohol treatment, compared with £2billion for treatment of problem drug users. Yet there are estimated to be 1.6million problem drinkers in England, over five times more than there are dangerous drug users. I do not underestimate the dangers of drugs, but anyone who has ever sat in a courtroom knows that alcohol is the bigger problem, spilling into domestic violence, family breakdown, street disorder, stretched police and A and E budgets.

I have been studying the issue in more detail to research a novel, My Name Is, about a young girl’s descent into alcoholism. I chose a woman, and wrote as a woman, having heard Southampton liver specialist Dr Nick Sheron say that whereas once his patients were ninety per cent men, now the split is fifty fifty, not perhaps he equality women need or want, but a sign of a significant societal change which has already taken place.

The big change is the normalisation of alcohol at every level of society – think Pimms, champers, aperitif and digestif at the top end, ‘work hard play hard’ among professional middle classes, cheap supermarket booze at home or in the street for those short of cash, and mums of all classes thinking they ‘deserve’ a drink when the kids have gone to bed.

Publicans say they have never been under more pressure, and pubs, with all their social checks and balances, are closing at the rate of 26 per week. But fewer pubs does not mean less drink; cheap deals in supermarkets – not to mention petrol stations! – an explosion in wine as the middle class drink of choice, alongside a £800million tsunami of marketing and advertising, have seen to that. In a recent study children – who are supposed to be sheltered from alcohol promotion – recognized alcohol adverts more than they did those for ice cream and cakes. As for the rule that adverts should not suggest a link between alcohol and social or sexual success, just watch them to see how often it is broken.

If you watch as much football as I do, you notice trends: a booze ad, then a gambling ad, then a payday loans ad. Might there be a link between the three? When the England football team played recently, hoardings around the pitch told us that Carlsberg was ‘the official beer of the England team.’ The American PGA has an ‘official vodka’ sponsor. Whisky sponsors are in sports as varied as Formula One, rugby, golf, polo and rowing. FA Cup sponsored by Budweiser. Champions League sponsored by Heineken (when they’re not product placing with James Bond). The Guinness Premiership. Wine is big in cricket and its coverage. They do not do it for their health, or for philanthropy. And when Australian cricketer David Warner apologized for his boozed up attack on England’s Joe Root in a late night bar, was I alone in noting the irony of the beer advert on his shirt?

As a problem drinker I know that you can only begin to solve the problem when you admit to it. It is the same for a problem drinking country which is what we are, and how we are increasingly seen abroad.

Russia of all people did it and has had some success in lowering rates of alcoholism with a mix of price rises, availability controls and a ban on TV, radio, billboard, Internet and public transport advertising. In France rugby fans watch the H Cup not the Heineken Cup because any linkage between sport and alcohol is banned – Ireland is thinking of following suit – and advertising strictly regulated. There is a total advertising ban in Norway, in Sweden a ban on strong alcohol advertising, and a ban on Google alcohol ads in countries as varied as Poland, Finland and Vietnam. Parts of Australia have street drinking bans. In one area of Australia a local minimum price hike led to a 19.4per cent reduction. Where minimum unit pricing has been tried in British Columbia a ten per cent price increase led to a one third fall in deaths attributed to alcohol. None of the education and awareness campaigns favoured by the industry can claim such results. Nor can Labour’s relaxation of the licensing laws, which I do not believe has led to the more ‘Continental’ relaxed drinking style argued for them at the time.

David Cameron did at least admit to the problem, and proposed following Alex Salmond’s SNP with minimum unit pricing for England. But an industry worth £37.7billion a year, which supports two million jobs and contributes £16.3billion to the public finances, was never going to let that happen without a fight, and the government backed down.

No politician wants to be a killjoy. But alcohol abuse is no longer the exception it has become a norm. At the party conferences I will be supporting Alcohol Concern’s call for a minimum 50p unit price, and raising levels of treatment from the current 6percent of dependent drinkers to 15 percent. Small steps but they require big politicians to back them not back away.
Recently I was discussing alcohol with a group of international students. A Greek student at the LSE told the story of his first Friday night here, when he asked a British student what he planned to do for the evening.

‘I am going to get smashed out of my brain.’ said the Brit. The Greek looked confused. ‘How do you know?’ he asked.
I might suggest he joins me at the party conferences.

* My Name Is, published by Hutchinson £18.99

  • reprehensible

    yup, i even saw a fight at a house night last night. clearly wasn’t enough MDMA kicking around. what’s your position on the alternatives Alastair? we need something to deal with the reality of a tory government following the disappointment of the blair years

  • niall


    I think your last story is the most important, and the most difficult to address, the “I’m going to get smashed out of my brain” attitude. I live in the Czech Republic where booze is very cheap, and though there are obviously problem drinkers here too, the general attitude is that getting “smashed” is really looked down upon. My suspicion is that price hikes will have little effect and that the getting smashed attitude will find other ways to achieve the goal – illegal drugs, smuggled booze etc. Now that obviously is not offering a solution, but I really think the simple price hike policy is counter productive.

    How about this as a policy from the Czechs. When someone is found incapable because of drink, they are picked up in an ambulance and taken not to a proper hospital, but to a drunks unit to sleep it off under supervision. They are then charged for wasting time and resources of the emergency services. It happened to a work colleague of mine. He has not drunk since due to the shock of ending up there.

    Keep talking about the issue though. It is important.



  • Bex

    Totally agree. However, I think more people are beginning to realise that it can’t continue. I know a lot of my friends have abandoned ‘wine o’clock’ and I have been alcohol free for over 3 months. I think the sober revolution is coming.

  • Sean McAndrew

    Sage words.

  • Ehtch

    Can I be honest?

    Do need some alcohol, but not everyday. It seems to clear something out of my blood two or three times a week.

    BUT YES some do daily, but some do slowly, at the dinning table seems OK, but out of bed and stretch for the vodka slurp, then OK, that is something different from what I just said.

    Best park it up, or get help to put it into that parking space.

    Nice song here, with a young lady puffing on a joint on a Minnesota farm track,

    WHAT! I hear you say.

    • Ehtch

      By the way, better say, Bob Hope/Jamaican Woodbines/Jimi Hendrix Superkings makes me paranoid, tried it throughout life about a dozen times or more, lowest strength even, same effect, I was crawling up the wall thinking everyone was talking about me. Yes, you say can something about me, I am borderline something.

      Takes all sorts to make the World up, but all said, I am all for making it legal, suits some. Ganja is only a herb after all, not made from a chemistry set.

      But poppies? NOPE! That’s a flower… Anyway, it sends your heart nuts, you are liable to drop down dead with overuse of that.

      • Ehtch

        OOPS! coca leaves even… Charlie. Poppies is H of course. Silly me.

        • Ehtch

          Howard Marks, the prime exponent of ganja in the UK – suits him. Brilliant clever Welsh bloke, has many tidy good things to say,

          Advising youngsters here how to blag a million…

  • Ondaatje

    I feel that the UK is drowning in a sea of alcohol, it seems we are doomed unless government take robust action. That said lets start to rehabilitate the folk that are already out of control. It’s time to put as much effort into alcoholics recovery, that as been offered to other drug users.

  • Miles Protter

    Down here in Oz they’ve released a study that indicates very similar trends of women drinking a lot more, many at very dangerous levels. You see it on a Friday night downtown in Perth, alongside some very drunk lads. It was interesting that the article also celebrated women feeling less inhibited these days about going out for a drink with friends, a victory of sorts in a country wtih a lot of big, male oriented booze barns and few cozy wine bars / pubs outside of city centres. Probably a connection?

  • Mark Wright

    Whilst minimum unit pricing and restrictions on advertising are to be welcomed we as a nation need to dig deeper than proposing surface solutions, although to be welcomed, to the problem. The psychology of our nation needs to be examined also.

    We need to ask ourselves why getting blind drunk has become synonymous with having a ‘good night out’. Has our experience of daily life become so unsatisfying and intolerable that we wish to escape it at every opportunity? For many I would argue that this has become the case.

    So intertwined has alcohol become with our nightlife that some now find impossible to contemplate leaving their front doors without it being on their agenda for the evening. There are actually people who will not go out AT ALL if they can’t have a drink as, and I quote, “What’s the point?”.

    Just think about that for a moment.

    For a large part of our population their raison d’etre for going out *IS* to get drunk. Not to enjoy the music. Not to enjoy the company of good friends. Not to enjoy a well prepared meal. No. To get drunk. They talk about it incessantly beforehand, informing each other how ‘smashed’ they’re going to get that night; then during their night out they continue to inform each how ‘smashed’ they are; then the next day they gather again and tell each other stories of how ‘smashed’ they were. For many, alcohol provides the narrative for their entire weekend. All under the banner of ‘having a laugh’ of course.

    Well it’s not funny is it?

    We as a nation can do better than this.

    But we need to ask ourselves why we think we cannot.

    Are we that inhibited, that uninspired by the world around us, that dissatisfied with the relationships we have with our friends and, perhaps more importantly, with ourselves that our life experience is meaningless or less enjoyable unless we are cradling a bottle of Bud in our hands?

    Yes, we need to look at practical ways to reduce our alcohol consumption. For a longer term solution, however, we need to look at *why* it even started in the first place.

  • willshome

    “If any journalists are reading, don’t allow the industry away with the argument…” If any subs are reading, they will helpfully insert the words ” to get”. Happy to help.

    any journalists are reading, please do not allow the industry away with
    the argument – See more at:

    If any journalists are reading, please do not allow the industry away
    with the argument – See more at:

    If any journalists are reading, please do not allow the industry away
    with the argument – See more at:

  • willshome

    The basic message, though, is spot on. The Alcopops moment was key. And of course the extension of drinking hours. How much money went into convincing politicians that was the way to bring in “civilsed” drinking? You should know.

  • Michele

    OK so it’s not a blog about the Libdem conference but I’ll post about it anyway.

    Nick Clegg, in his conference-closing ‘speech’ reeled off a list of things that he claimed, by sheer ‘virtue’ of their being in coalickon, had prevented the Tories succeeding in getting passed in to law.

    His trusted fellow members (of Cabinet) sat applauding in the front rows. Very convincing ….. but not true.

    Just how did their being in partnership with the Tories (‘in Govt’ as he tends to put it) stop the list of Tory uglier ambitions getting passed?

    Wouldn’t they have also voted against them from the opposite benches? D’uh …….


    I’ve thought in the past that Tim Farron’s a decent sort but hey ho ….. he fibbed this week.

    He claimed there was NO alternative to their joining forces with Dave.

    I’m pretty sure that after the 3-4 days of GB being side-lined by Dave and Nick’s first long weekend together, Nick finally met up with GB but the promotions offered did not match up to those from Dave.

    NO alternative ….. or just less shocking bribery?

    Tim Farron also asserted that even if Libdems had agreed to work with Labour it would have been pointless as the total no. of MPs would not have been able to beat a whipped Tory vote.

    Rubbish, surely he must understand the term ‘balance of power’?

    Unless DUP and SDP @ 28 MPs in total were likely always to vote with the Tories (they’re not) libdems’ 57 COULD have beaten bad Tory legislation withOUT the more highly-rewarded actuality.


    Libdems have enabled our assets to be privatised and are cheering whenever a Tory boasts about how much (how much) is being spent (regardless about what it’s being spent on and in to whose pockets).

    PS: Hope the manflu is beaten ….

  • Daniel Factor

    There’s no evidence that the advertising and marketing of alcohol causes dangerous drinking. People don’t see adverts for booze and then go and get smashed!

    • Michele

      So if advertising doesn’t increase sales why is it bought or, better question, why is allowed to be used as a necessary expense to reduce tax bills?

      OF COURSE it affects sales, maybe not within total volumes but definitely between brands.

  • Daniel Factor

    Note snobbery at complaining about sponsorship of football by alcohol. Yes cos the masses cannot be trusted.

  • Matthew Richardson

    Where does Miliband stand on this? Surely this is another opportunity to do what Cameron won’t and stand up to big business when it is blatantly in the public interest.

  • Stephen Low

    Possible solution to two problems;