Mixed Message

The government’s plans to extend licensing hours, which will come
into force in the autumn under the Licensing Act 2003, have been
slammed by many experts. They say longer drinking hours will cause
more health problems, fuel more violent behaviour, and waste police
and health budgets.

The government has tried to deflect criticism with a new strategy
to curb binge drinking and underage drinking announced in the
consultation paper Drinking Responsibly published in January.
Proposals include banning orders on drinking and fixed penalty

The consultation paper follows the long-awaited publication of the
alcohol harm reduction strategy for England in March 2004 followed
by a public health white paper in November, with further proposals
for reducing the impact of alcohol on health.

But all this has done little to satisfy campaigners who say the
government’s own research shows the ineffectiveness of current laws
and the harm alcohol is doing to the nation’s health and

According to a study by the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit,
published in 2003, hangovers and drink-related illness costs
employers £6.4bn a year and the NHS £1.7bn a year.
Alcohol-related problems are responsible for 22,000 premature
deaths each year. Up to 1.3 million children are affected by
parents with drink problems, and they are more likely themselves to
have problems later in life. And this could be a conservative

Billions of pounds are spent clearing up alcohol-related crime and
social problems. In 2002-3, 1.2 million crimes were alcohol-related
and 44 per cent of all violent crime was fuelled by alcohol.

But isn’t there an inherent conflict with government plans to curb
binge drinking while at the same time extending drinking hours? And
if so, will this conflict work against tackling alcohol

Nick Heather, emeritus professor of alcohol and other drug studies
at the University of Northumbria, says: “We have a particular type
of culture which encourages binge drinking. If you put that pattern
into longer hours you will have more harm. And there is no evidence
to support the government’s argument that by extending drinking
hours we will change drinking habits.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Health insists there is no evidence to
suggest flexible licensing hours in the UK will lead to increased
consumption of alcohol. It cites countries with more liberal
licensing hours where binge drinking is less frequent.

The government admits that alcohol-fuelled disorder happens too
often but says its new strategy and revised, tougher laws would
reduce alcohol-related harm. Despite the tough talk, police chiefs
believe the government’s strategy is a short-term fix to a
long-term problem.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) says plans to
create alcohol disorder zones, a key feature of Drinking
Responsibly, will hit the taxpayer. Chris Allison, a commander with
the Metropolitan Police who co-ordinates Acpo’s response on
licensing issues, says the new act will place greater pressure on
local councils and police forces as they attempt to enforce the

Acpo wants a multi-pronged approach to curbing drink-related
problems that would include a plan for drinks companies to pay for
extra policing.

“The new act will just shift these closing times back later into
the night and condense them into a smaller time frame,” Acpo said
in its submission to the consultation.

Police fears that extending hours will lead to more antisocial
behaviour are backed up by Ian Gilmore, chair of the Royal College
of Physicians’ alcohol committee. “Given the starting point of an
epidemic of binge drinking, it is more likely that liberalisation
will instead be associated with a rise in alcohol misuse,
drunkenness, medical damage, violence and public disorder,” he

“The places that will take advantage of changes in the law are not
the local, neighbourhood pubs where responsible drinking already
occurs. It will be the large, anonymous, urban establishments, with
a young clientele that will benefit most – but experience the most

Britain’s underage drinkers are already at a disadvantage.
According to a study by the European School Survey Project on
Alcohol and Other Drugs, our teenagers are among the heaviest
drinkers and drug-users in Europe.

The survey of 15- and 16 year-olds found 26 per cent of boys and 29
per cent of girls in the UK had indulged in binge drinking at least
three times in the previous month. For this research, binge
drinking was classed as having more than five alcoholic drinks in a

The study’s researchers concluded that part of the problem was that
parents do not know what their teenage children get up to in their
spare time and do not impose any restrictions on their

Jon Perry, acting chief executive at Advice and Counselling on
Alcohol and Drugs, says it is down to parents to teach their
children to drink responsibly. “We must encourage adults to drink
responsibly. Adults are the demonstrators of behaviour for the next

Persuading parents of the advantages of this approach could be a
hard nut to crack. A survey by the Portman Group, which represents
the UK drinks industry, found parents were more worried about sex,
drugs, smoking, strangers and bullying than about alcohol misuse by
their own children.

But there is a groundswell of feeling that these new ideas will
achieve little unless there is a co-ordinated approach overseen by
an “alcohol tsar”. Srabani Sen, chief executive of Alcohol Concern,
says: “A tsar would pull together all the different threads of
policy. This is the only way we can tackle the causes of
alcohol-related harm rather than just symptoms.”

And Nick Heather points out the important role played by profit.
“The drinks industry is in business to make a profit. The kinds of
restrictions that are needed will affect these profits. There is
bound to be a conflict between the interests of the drinks industry
and public health.”

The side the government takes in this conflict will allow us to
measure how serious it is about tackling binge drinking and
underage drinking.

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