I like a drink, especially good wine. I recently gave up alcohol for ten days after returning from Italy, an annual penance that I feel does me good. I find alcohol a relaxant, makes me feel convivial and an instant endorphin producer. And I’d better own up to the fact that I once owned half of a brewery and was a significant shareholder in a gin distillery. (You could say I live on gin). So I’m sympathetic to the vast majority of people who also enjoy it and recognize what a valuable role it can play in society. But we have to face facts. Drinking to excess in Britain has risen in the past 50 years. As the price has gone down drinking to excess has gone up. When the culture of heavy drinking is acceptable, as it is among many sections of society, then price is the key determinant on whether someone will drink to excess. The price of beer and cider has fallen by about 30 per cent in real terms since 1990, while wine and spirits have fallen by about 20 per cent. As earnings have risen, alcohol is within everyone’s reach, less than a pound now for a bottle of Eurofizz lager or cheap cider bought at below cost from supermarkets selling as a loss leader.
As Sir Liam Donaldson, the former Chief Medical Officer said last year, cheap alcohol is “killing us as never before”. He said that the nation was blighted by “passive drinking”, with innocent bystanders the collateral damage of drunk drivers, domestic violence and antisocial behaviour. Hospital admissions involving people with an alcohol-related disease are up 69 per cent since 2003 and will soon reach a million annually. Liver disease shows a fivefold increase in the under-65s in the past 30 years and almost all of this increased morbidity is due to alcohol.
Donaldson wanted to introduce a minimum price of 50p a unit of alcohol, the immediate benefit would be 3,393 fewer deaths each year, 97,900 fewer hospital admissions and 45,800 fewer crimes. The Government rejected it, and I do not have much hope that the Coalition will face up to the powerful antipathetic lobbies of the drinks industry. The solution is staring us in the face as it did in the 18th century when the effect of gin on the working population was devastating.
In 1729 Parliament increased the tax on gin and this led to ill feeling in the working classes and ultimately to the gin riots . (Is this what the Government fears?) The government responded by reducing duties and penalties, claiming that moderate measures would be easier to enforce. But Gin drinking continued to be a problem and by the 1740s the British were consuming 8,000,000 gallons a year. In 1751 the government took action and greatly increased duties on gin. The sale by distillers and shopkeepers was strictly controlled and these measures successfully reduced the consumption of gin in Britain.
Put the price of alcohol up to where it was twenty years ago and the problem would more or less be solved. Changing culture will take far too long, we are northern Europeans not southern European in our attitudes to drink. Someone will tell me that putting the price up would encourage smuggling (true) and that we can’t be so out of kilter with the rest of Europe. Why not? Even a small fiscal change would help us tackle the problem.