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Tuesday, January 19, 2010 

The depressing political fight over binge drinking.

There's little that's more depressing than politicians attempting to outdo each other when it comes to the latest social evil to have been sporadically identified. We went through it on gun crime, on knife crime, and now as we approach the election it seems we've decided on binge drinking as the next thing to be cracked down upon, at least until the new and even deadlier scare comes along, which looks at the moment to be shaping up to be mephedrone.

While it's often been the moralising tabloid press that has screamed loudest and longest about the damage being down to the centres of our towns and cities at weekends in the usual hyperbolic fashion, alongside the health workers who find themselves at the sharp end, it's been the Scottish National Party that started the arms race and which is attempting to legislating a minimum price for a unit of alcohol sold off-licence. It goes without saying that this is the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, penalising everyone regardless of how little or how much they drink, a flat tax on booze if you will.

It is though the kind of policy that ensures you know where you stand. The same can't be said for either the government's changes to the current licensing conditions or to the Tories' counter proposals. Labour seems to be completely ignoring the fact that it isn't the pubs or clubs which are overwhelming flogging cheap alcohol to the masses, as anyone who visits either even casually will notice, but the supermarkets with their offers on cases of the stuff, usually with either 2 for a £10 or a similar slightly higher sum. The Tories admittedly have recognised this, with their new policy being to ensure that supermarkets can't sell booze at below cost price, but their other proposals are even more draconian than Labour's, and typically stupid. The idea that imposing extra tax only on strong lagers and ciders, as well as alcopops, which those drinking to get drunk rarely imbibe will have any effect when they can downgrade to the only slightly less strong "ordinary" beers is ludicrous, and seems more designed to sneer at those who drink them than anything else.

As always, the real reason why there's something approaching a drinking problem in this country is not mentioned. When quality of life is so poor that the one thing to look forward to is getting smashed at the weekend, or indeed every night to take away from the everyday nightmare of living and working, the problem is not with individuals or with the opiate, but with the entire philosophy of a nation and the modern nature of capitalism itself. We then further promote an immature attitude towards drink by denying it to teenagers as a matter of politics, while families across the countries connive in breaking the law to give it them. When politicians are not prepared to so much as consider the first as a factor, while continuing to regard alcohol as a terrible thing until we reach a certain arbitrary age, we're always going to be reduced to a political auction where everyone asks how much without considering why we're bidding in the first place.

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Yes, you would have thought that the McCanns had learnt their lesson...

I don't agree on the sledgehammer & the nut. Current (English) government policy is to focus almost exclusively on binge drinking, considered mainly as a law and order problem, & try and engineer it out of the system. Other forms of drinking, and other ways in which it might present a problem (e.g. health, driving) don't get a look in, and you could be forgiven for thinking the government was all in favour of people getting quietly and 'responsibly' leathered on a regular basis. This is no coincidence, as the (English) government's policy is very largely formed by the Portman Group - a lobby group for the alcohol industry. It's a classic case of regulatory capture - the industry taking over the body that's trying to regulate it.

More people in Britain, and more younger people, are drinking more, stronger alcoholic drinks than they were when Labour came to power. This is a massive health problem waiting to happen. The law of supply and demand is the obvious place to intervene. The difference between England and Scotland in this respect is that the Scottish government listens to the medics.

I quite agree on the government being in the hands of the Portman group - they seem determined to shaft the pubs while letting the supermarkets carry on with their predatory tactics, although considering that's been the consistent economic policy of the last 13 years it's not much of a surprise.

The health argument though also doesn't take into account what I went over in the last paragraph - it just wants the effect neutered without wondering about the cause. And despite dealing with the real world, those angling for a crackdown also don't seem to realise that it's going to take far more than just increasing the price to even begin to deal with the problem.

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