Comment: The Blair government created an alcohol monster

It is probably right to 'call time' on 'Binge Britain' and time to take up policies like Scotland's, which are based on a more nuanced understanding of the problems and benefits of drink.

By Dr Jane McGregor

When New Labour came to power in 1997 it pledged to re-examine licensing laws but no move was made on this until the 2001 election. The feature of their campaign involved sending out a text message at 10 pm on the Saturday before the election, on the mobile phones of young voters and students that read, 'Cldnt gve a 4xxxx for lst ordrs? Thn vte Labr on thrsday 4 extra time'. The tactic was intended to play to young voters, though was hastily played down because critics saw it as an irresponsible and inconsistent move.

In the midst of public debate on licensing, a Panorama programme called 'Cldnt Gve a 4XXXX for Lst Ordrs,' was broadcast on 6th June 2004, which featured Nottingham. This introduced Nottingham as having played a defining role in the success of the UK night time economy but it also showed, with devastating effect, what the city was dealing with in the aftermath of licensing policy decisions. The episode represented a key policy moment, for events occurred at a time when '24 hour' licensing was debated in
Parliament. Government used the ensuing crisis to push through its proposals for licensing reform, arguing a reduction in licensing restrictions would end 'bingeing to catch last orders,' whilst Nottingham gained notoriety as the 'Binge Capital of Britain.' Within days of the documentary being aired the media fixed upon Nottingham as a centre of binge drinking and depravity. An article of the Sunday Times described Nottingham as in the vanguard of the binge drinking trend; "The proliferation of bars in city centres means binge drinkers can throw up, fall down, urinate and get into fights any place they feel like. Nottingham…. is at the forefront of this unlovely trend…."

Intent on keeping licensing reform on track, the government, in the thick of the ensuing drink crisis, seized the opportunity to declare licensing reform the best way to prevent binge drinking. Prime minister Tony Blair, claimed binge drinking 'a new British disease', which only licensing reform could prevent by bringing to a halt the rush to catch last orders and encouraging the adoption of European drinking styles. In July 2004 nightly news reportson the problem reported a 'summer blitz' by the Home Office on drink-related disorder.

A few months later (November 2004) ministers demanded a serious crackdown, blaming drunken yobs for half of all violent attacks. Coverage centred heavily on the problem of the 'British disease'; Tony Blair was prompted, in his speech at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, to promise to extend powers of on-the-spot fines to deal with binge drinking. In an analysis of newspaper coverage of the issue between 2003 and 2006 an academic from the field of communication, Chas Critcher, concluded that binge drinking was initially played up, as well as defined, by Government itself, in order to present its reforms in favourable terms. The 'primary definers'; those describing or expressing an opinion on the issue, were politicians, mostly from Government but also the Opposition. After that came the police, who stressed the criminal aspects of binge drinking and public order.

Only after that came 'medical authorities' and the drinks industry, in terms of contributing to definitions of the problem. Campaigning groups and the national bodies such as Alcohol Concern, the Institute of Alcohol Studies, and drink's industry's body the Portman Group rarely were sources at this time. Television played an important role in playing up the problem during the crisis, with Granada's television series 'Booze Britain' and other televised programmes confirming drink a major urban public disorder matter.

Alcohol was firmly on the political agenda after the above mentioned events. The criminal justice sector's involvement in policy was seen as justified at the time because statistics suggested over one-third (37%) of offenders had an existing problem with alcohol use, a similar proportion (37%) had problems with binge drinking and 32 per cent had violent behaviour related to their drinking. Hence, though the main driver of the reforms had been a commercial one, government justified its reforms on the grounds that they would combat alcohol-related crime and anti-social behaviour. As a consequence, criminal justice developed as a new and important frame for national alcohol policy. Health was notably absent from policy discussion at this time and policy over alcohol developed a strong criminal justice flavour (Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England, 2004). Having jostled for dominance, the medical lobby, which for so long had promoted public health responses to alcohol, seemed to lose the fight, and its influence in policy making circles at that time became somewhat diminished.

Since that time, there have been calls from health lobbyists to deal more effectively with alcohol's hidden harms. The number of hospital admissions due to alcohol abuse was 1.1 million in 2009/10, a 100 per cent increase since 2002/3. Last year the Coalition Government unveiled plans to set a minimum price for alcohol in England and Wales. It said banning shops and bars from selling drinks for less than the tax paid on them would cut crime and set a 'base price' for the first time. Many health campaigners were disappointed by the minimum prices set, arguing that Government was too lenient with the drinks industry over the issue; the Royal College of Physicians arguing that the proposed minimum prices were too small a step likely to have no impact. 

However recently David Cameron has come out in support of minimum unit pricing of alcohol, requesting officials draw up the new Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy, expected to be published later this year. Many health officials are hopeful that other public health measures will be included and see Scotland as leading the way since the Scottish model proposes to ban quantity discount off-sales, put restrictions on where material promoting alcohol may be displayed and involve public health officials in licensing issues. The situation is clear; many of us are drinking too much alcohol, too often and control of alcohol availability is a public health concern. It is probably right to 'call time' on 'Binge Britain' and time to take up policies like Scotland's, which are based on a more nuanced understanding of the problems and benefits of drink.

Dr Jane McGregor is a part time lecturer at Nottingham University. Her research interests lie in substance misuse policy and treatment. Her point is expanded in her book ‘Drink and the City’, which  draws on research from her PhD thesis ‘From dependence to Binge: alcohol in Nottingham 1950 to 2007’

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