Alan Johnson and the government have taken to the airwaves to defend their latest proposals on regulating the alcohol industry as concerns grow across the country about alcohol consumption.
Whilst the proposals are welcome, they tinker around the edges of alcohol consumption and will not make a real impact in our town centres or A&E departments around the country. Journalists were kind in not asking where all the other previous proposals (left to voluntary adoption by the industry and consequently all ignored) have got to. The answer given, that there is no ‘magic bullet’ is right, but it is also being used wrongly as a defence against the unjustifiable failure to tackle properly excessive alcohol consumption. The Conservative proposals go a step further, but neither party seems to be willing to devolve decision-making to the most appropriate local body – the licensing authority.
When my own authority considers applications, particularly those within an already concentrated area of the night-time economy, it already regularly asks licensees to voluntarily accept the conditions on alcohol promotions and happy hours. We ask them to sign up to the ‘Challenge 21′ scheme, which is more rigorous than that proposed by the government. We are asking those same premises to put in place a voluntary condition to prohibit customers taking glass containers outside to prevent violent crime. So without a much publicised central government initiative we are already going further.
What we want from the government, however, is to be able to tackle off licences and how they interact with other alcohol outlets and, as a key way of doing this, to consider the number of outlets in totality within an area. Local authorities should be able to limit their number and declare ‘saturation’ in line with their own policy without the excessive restrictions that are currently placed upon them. This is the best way of determining the supply, regardless of type of premises.
I wholly understand the concerns of ministers when it comes to ‘ordinary people on ordinary incomes wanting to enjoy a reasonable amount of alcohol.’ But those concerns don’t prevent the government demanding that the drinks industry define ‘super strength’ products which could then be specifically prohibited from sale by local authorities. The issue of relative affordability has been discussed but, ultimately, if minimum pricing is not to find favour, then the only way forward can be to prohibit the sale of drinks that are specifically designed for excessive consumption, lead to easy intoxication and which are currently priced at the same level as soft drinks.
The restrictions add nothing to the efforts to stop the street drinkers gathering by the bus stops intimidating people who walk by. They do nothing to stop the off licence or corner shop selling super strength cider in two litre bottles to the man who will sit and drink it at home and then become aggressive to his partner and children. They don’t restrict those retailers who think that loss-leading alcohol is an appropriate way of getting customers through the door.
This is another missed opportunity by the government in a long history of capitulation to the drinks industry. Despite the words of the Conservatives, their own history gives no comfort that their approach, if they achieve power, will differ vastly from what we have just now. Alcohol is now the British equivalent of the US gun control debate where the industry is so well placed and seemingly influential, that government merely argues that the reasonable and responsible consumer of the products should not be overly affected by restrictions to deal with a minority of irresponsible consumers. And just as the debates across the Atlantic mirror each other, so deaths will continue in both countries as a result of legislative and political failure to face up to the fact – it’s the product and the industry, not just the consumer, who are to blame.
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