Updated: Aug 30
Welcome to the final (we’re sad to say) installment of guest blogger Henry Yeomans’ new series here on Points. Henry, a Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Leed’s School of Law, finishes off his series on changing conceptions of drink regulation in Britain by examining the implications of England’s newly-proposed minimum alcohol pricing.
PM Cameron to the English public: Pay up or dry up.
In March 2012, England and Wales reached something of a turning point regarding the regulation of alcohol. The Coalition Government released a new alcohol strategy that put forth the intention for a fixed, legal minimum price per unit of alcohol. Under these plans, it would be illegal for any retailer to sell an alcoholic beverage for less than the minimum unit price, which the strategy suggests may be initially set at 40p. The Scottish Government intends to introduce a minimum price of 45p per unit and the Northern Ireland Assembly has backed similar proposals, meaning cheap drink may soon be a hazy memory for Britons. But why is a minimum price considered necessary? The Prime Minister’s foreword to the England and Wales strategy explicitly states the rationale for this new policy: it is needed to tackle the “scourge of violence caused by binge drinking.” The Government considers binge drinking responsible for crime and violence which “drains resources in our hospitals, generates mayhem on our streets and spreads fear in our communities.” The Prime Minister is very clear that “this isn’t about stopping responsible drinking,” but is about targeting the small minority who drink to excess and cause problems for the rest of society. This strategy therefore reads like a rallying call; responsible drinkers are asked to unite behind tough pricing restrictions that will reform the behaviour of the irresponsible. This does not address the question, however, of where this idea of a minimum pricing comes from. Furthermore, is it simply a strategy for reducing binge drinking or will it have wider effects?
Targeting binge drinking through formal regulation is nothing new. New Labour adopted a fairly liberal line on licensing, famously removing statutory restrictions on opening times for licensed premises in 2005. But Tony Blair’s Government were dogged by accusations that these liberalising measures were fuelling binge drinking by young people and so worsening public drunkenness and disorder. The Blair Government responded by introducing a raft of new restrictions; alcohol-free zones, drink banning orders, and restrictions on drinks promotions were all efforts to clamp down on ‘irresponsible’ binge drinking. This regulatory approach, justified essentially as providing more freedom for the responsible and less for the irresponsible, echoed earlier government strategies. My last post described how, in the 1960s, licensing was somewhat liberalised while the regulation of some of the specific harmful consequences associated with drinking, including youth drunkenness, was enhanced. The Coalition Government’s current efforts to tackle binge drinking are, in some ways, simply an intensification of this older consequentialist preoccupation with the unacceptability or irresponsibility of youth drunkenness.
Sheffield, of the Sheffield Study
In some ways, however, minimum pricing represents a significant challenge to the consequentialist regulation that has been dominant since the 1960s. James Nicholls and Pekka Sulkunen, among others, have documented the development of “total consumption theory” (TCT) from the mid-twentieth century onwards. This school of thought was originally based on demographic research that suggested the best way to reduce alcohol-related harm was to reduce alcohol consumption amongst a whole population. In 2008, the Sheffield Study provided further support for this perspective by finding that minimum pricing, a measure which affects a whole population’s access to alcohol, would reduce a wide range of harms associated with alcohol, from throat cancer to unemployment. For advocates of TCT, this evidence implies that the distinction of “responsible” and “irresponsible” drinking is fatuous, as the reduction of all forms of drinking is linked to decreases in harm. All drinking, moderate and private as well as excessive and public, must become the legitimate object of governance.
The Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA), formed in 2007, has worked tirelessly to highlight the findings of the Sheffield Study and seek wider support for minimum pricing. Crucially, representatives of the AHA have repeatedly criticised the political preoccupation with young people binge drinking and argued that all forms of drinking are problematic for society. In 2009, Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson highlighted alcohol’s role in causing domestic violence, car accidents, sexual assault, suicide, and a host of serious health problems. In terms of ill health, he emphasised that “there is no safe alcohol limit.” Professor David Nutt, former member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, has similarly sought to highlight the toxic and addictive properties of even small amounts of alcohol. This viewpoint, in which youth drunkenness and public disorder are only a small part of Britain’s drink problem, has become increasingly influential and it is from this perspective, as a means to reduce general alcohol consumption, that minimum pricing has been developed and promoted as a policy in England and Wales. The Government, moreover, are certainly aware of this because, whilst in opposition, the Conservatives emphatically dismissed minimum pricing as an unfair punishment exacted on the responsible “majority of moderate drinkers.”
Outside of wartime, the levels of sobriety demanded by the temperance movement proved unpopular in this country. Alcohol has continued to be enjoyed by the majority of people in Britain and opinion polls suggest that minimum pricing is widely unpopular. The Government’s attempt to rally this majority of drinkers behind minimum pricing is therefore indicative of a rather confused strategy. There is an acute tension between a dominant consequentialism, which targets binge drinking as a specifically problematic behaviour popular with young people, and a medical or temperance-inspired project to reduce consumption in the whole population. It appears that the Government want to sound as if they are sticking to the former, while enacting policy devised to do the latter – a strange brew indeed. Naturally it is politically preferable for the Coalition to garner mass support for their policies, yet the political advantages may be eroded in the long term if apparently responsible drinkers find they have to either drink less or pay more. If the ‘responsible drinkers’ of Britain do indeed unite behind minimum pricing, they may soon find that they have more to lose than the social problems associated with binge drinking.