10 radical solutions to binge drinking

 
Man drinks wine while cooking

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Pressure to address the UK's binge drinking grows ever stronger, with a number of radical solutions being put forward to try to help people cut down.

David Cameron last week called binge drinking a "scandal" that costs the NHS £2.7bn a year. He pledged to introduce drunk tanks and booze buses, and there are plans for a minimum price for alcohol.

So what are the most radical solutions to the problem?

Subtly make drinks weaker

Definition of binge drinking

  • For men, more than eight units of alcohol - or about three pints of strong beer
  • For women, more than six units of alcohol, equivalent to three small (175ml) glasses of wine

Food firms have recently moved to cut the amount of salt and saturated fat in their products, following government pressure. The British Medical Association wants to see the same thing happen in relation to beer. So, for example, a premium lager could gradually be reduced from 5.5% to 5%, while a bitter comes down from 4.5% to 4%.

But Roger Protz, editor of the Good Beer Guide, says beer in Britain is much weaker than in the rest of Europe. And to reduce it would affect its characteristic flavour. "London Pride [bitter] at 4.1% is a lovely malty, hoppy beer but if you reduce it to 3.5% it will be very different."

Another approach would be to use the tax system to target stronger drinks. The March 2011 budget saw a rise in the duty on strong beers (above 7.5% alcohol) of 25%, and the duty on weak beers (below 2.8%) cut by 50%. Alcohol Concern says this should be extended to wine, which is getting stronger.

The British Beer and Pub Association says the current focus on beer is wrong. "We should be encouraging people to drink more beer rather than stronger drinks, which have been gaining market share. Beer tax here is 12 times that of Germany."

Enforce a minimum price for alcohol

Man carrying recycling box full of empty wine and beer bottles Many find it cheaper to drink at home

A review of international research published last year by Bangor University found that pricing was the "key determinant" for how much people drank.

Alcohol Concern wants to see a minimum rate of 50p per unit of alcohol brought in. It would make a pint of beer at least £1.25 and a bottle of wine £5.

It would hit the low-cost retailers rather than bars and restaurants, says Andrew Misell, a spokesman for Alcohol Concern. "It won't affect pub prices. Where you will be hit hard is in the supermarkets where cider is on sale for as little as 13p a unit."

The drinks industry says such moves only encourage counterfeit and smuggled alcohol. And Tim Martin, founder of JD Wetherspoon, says consumers will simply go abroad. "It's an international industry. People can go to Calais and load up their car with as much alcohol as they want."

Jamie Bartlett, author of Under the Influence, a 2011 report on binge drinking for think tank Demos, says it would cut total alcohol consumption but not necessarily binges. "The problem is people going on benders and it's not clear it would have an impact on that."

Get people back into pubs

Barbara Windsor in a pub, 1963 Pubs are dying out but are they a safer place to drink?

One of the traditional roles of the pub landlord is to tell a drinker when they've had enough. No such authority figure exists in people's living rooms. And pubs are closing in great numbers across the country, as supermarket-bought booze now accounts for about half of what's being consumed.

So, one solution is to shift drinking back into the pub where it is typically more expensive, served in measurable quantities, and supervised by trained staff. Martin says this can be done by cutting VAT on food and alcohol in pubs to 5%, a proposal that has been successful in helping restaurants in France and Ireland. Supermarkets add no VAT on to the food they sell, whereas pubs have VAT of 20%. "Supermarkets are effectively cross subsidising alcohol sales with their food sales. It's a huge tax advantage that undermines pubs," Martin says.

The British Medical Association does not accept that pubs should be cheaper but agrees that shop-bought drink should be made more expensive - "thus encouraging alcohol to be consumed in pubs where there are more controls". Misell cautions against getting too nostalgic about a golden age of pub sobriety that never was. "Some people idolise the pub as this place where it's impossible to get drunk. And yet we all know it's perfectly possible to over-indulge there."

Raise the legal drinking age

Empties in a park

In the US, the legal drinking age is 21. And there's an argument that by raising the minimum age, it makes it easier for retailers to police under-age drinking - most 21-year-olds look like adults. While raising the minimum age is not official BMA policy, the doctors' body argues that it is something that could be explored. A spokeswoman suggests: "Evidence from America clearly demonstrates that raising the legal drinking age has a significant positive effect on alcohol-related problems." Alcohol Concern agrees but says it would be politically impossible to raise the drinking age.

Tim Martin says that teenagers are going to try to drink, regardless of the law. The key thing is that they start by drinking beer in pubs, under the "watchful eye" of the landlord rather than vodka somewhere else. It's time the government stopped trying to entrap landlords by hiring 15 and 16-year-olds to try to get served.

Off-licences are rarely prosecuted for selling to under 18s, as it is, says Bartlett. So to raise the age limit even higher would not make sense. "Last year I think only one off-licence was fined for selling alcohol to a minor," says Bartlett.

The drinks industry says the issue of under-age drinking is already taken seriously in shops. For instance, under the Challenge 25 scheme shoppers are warned that if they look under 25 they may have to show ID, says Richard Dodd, spokesman for the British Retail Consortium. It raises the question of why this is not rolled out everywhere, as happens in countries like Sweden.

Nationalise off-licences

In some places - most of Canada, certain US States and Sweden - only certain state-owned shops can sell alcohol. The most rigorous is Sweden.

To buy a bottle of wine in Sweden, it's necessary to visit one of the country's network of Systembolaget shops, which close on Saturday afternoons and do not open on Sundays. The approach prevents impulse buys in the supermarket and the products are displayed in an atmosphere more akin to a chemist's than an off-licence. The Swedish model is based on the idea that by keeping control of price and availability, alcohol consumption is reduced.

A study carried out by international alcohol researchers in 2010 concluded that scrapping Sweden's state shops would lead to a 14% rise if sales were limited to private liquor stores. And allowing any grocery store to sell alcohol would result in a 29% rise in alcohol consumption.

However, such a proposal is unlikely to go down well with voters. Even Alcohol Concern warns of the dangers of "stockpiling".

And Dodd says it is absurd to crack down on supermarkets which would be most influenced by the change. "Supermarkets are already the most responsible alcohol outlets that there are and I can't see that preventing them from selling alcohol would improve things."

Discourage rounds

Buying rounds can create a social pressure to keep buying drinks because it's your turn. Last year the Sun reported that Prof Richard Thaler, an adviser to David Cameron on "nudge" - a form of behavioural economics, said buying rounds makes people drink more. He recommended that large groups set up a tab to be split at the end of an evening's drinking.

However bizarre, the idea of forbidding rounds is not new. During World War I, buying rounds - "treating" as it was known - was banned after fears that the war effort was being damaged by drunkenness.

Misell says it would be impractical to institute such a ban. But he supports the idea of improving public awareness on the perils of rounds. "My experience of rounds on a night out is that you very easily drink more than intended. My one piece of advice is - don't drink in rounds."

Ban alcohol marketing

Critics of the drinks industry say that cut price deals and cheeky advertising makes people drink more than they otherwise would.

Research in 2008 by the Royal College of Physicians found a link between sports sponsorship by alcohol firms and binge drinking. At the time half of all Premier League football teams and all 12 of the Guinness Premier League rugby clubs had alcohol firms as a sponsor. Today, Everton has a brewer - Chang - as its shirt sponsor and, until recently, Liverpool shirts carried the name of Carlsberg.

Alcohol Concern wants to see alcohol advertising banned from sport, television, and in cinemas for films aimed at those under 18. In theory, advertising is forbidden from associating alcohol with social or sexual success.

Official advice on drinking

  • Introduced in 1987, updated in 1995
  • Men: 21 units a week max, with no more than three or four units a day
  • Women: 14 units a week max, with no more than two or three units a day
  • After heavy drinking, no alcohol for 48 hours to allow body to recover

"But in practice few ads don't include those two things," says Misell. By way of example he points to the beer advert featuring Holly Valance flirting with two Australian comedians. He is also in favour of renaming the large glass of wine (250ml) extra large - it equals a third of a bottle of wine. The small (175ml) glass could then be renamed medium, with a new small size(125ml) available.

Alcohol promotions such as three bottles of wine for £10, or trays of beer tied into the World Cup, are still common in England. However they've been banned in Scotland. Financial Times wine critic Jancis Robinson says banning such deals makes sense. "Cut price wine deals are killing wine suppliers, too."

But Sarah Hanratty, a spokeswoman for the Portman Group, which represents the drinks industry, says banning sports sponsorship and other forms of marketing would punish the sensible majority. "It's a competitive market and the role of marketing is to help consumers choose between brands based on their lifestyle."

Target middle-class professionals

Much of the media attention to do with binge drinking is focused on public drunkenness. But it's arguable that the greater problem is the health impact of drinking too much.

Liver disease is the only major cause of death in Britain that is on the increase. Hospital admissions for alcoholic liver disease among people in their early 30s in north-east England have increased by more than 400% in the past eight years.

Start Quote

I was at the outer limit - stiff whisky or G&T before dinner, couple of glasses of wine or even half a bottle with it”

End Quote Tony Blair on his drinking habits in office

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former spokesman, has recently pointed out that middle-class professionals are now the most frequent drinkers in the country. According to the Office for National Statistics 41% of professional men drink more than their daily limit at least once a week. But instead of targeting the Rioja-drinking classes, the focus of much rhetoric was on the damage done by public drunkenness. For many commentators, the government is pointing at the wrong group.

Nicholas Lezard wrote in the Guardian that Cameron is "trying to make us think of the proletariat getting smashed on cut-price lager". Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times agrees. "He [Cameron] doesn't mean someone who has spent the evening with a really nice Sancerre". He means the poor but "the poor, do not, on the whole, binge drink".

But is it really feasible to target the middle-class professional with their trusty gin and tonic or bottle of pinot noir? Jancis Robinson says it's all unworkable. "I really can't see how the government can effectively control what we drink in our own homes."

Not in front of the children

Child joining in a family toast When - and how - to introduce a child to alcohol?

Parents who drink a lot in front of their children may normalise the idea of heavy drinking. The Demos report, Under the Influence, argued that the government should consider issuing advice to parents about drinking in front of their children.

"This evidence, although limited, fits with what we know about behaviour - that steady exposure to norms and habits tacitly builds attitudes. Therefore more consideration needs to be given to advice that is given to parents about drinking in front of children."

Carrie Longton, co-founder of Mumsnet, says parents need to be aware how they're seen by the children. "You need to teach by example. What you drink is important." So careful about drinking that second glass of wine in front of the children.

Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting, agrees that parents have an important role to play. But far from avoiding alcohol in front of the kids, parents should allow teenagers to drink a little with a meal.

It removes the mystique of "an illegal drug" and makes it part of food culture, he argues. His view goes against official advice. In 2009, Sir Liam Donaldson, England's chief medical officer at the time, said that children aged under 15 should never drink alcohol.

Stop exaggerating the problem

Traditional social lubricant

The British believe alcohol is a disinhibitor, that it makes people amorous or aggressive.

But it is possible to change our drinking culture. Cultural shifts happen all the time, and there is extensive evidence to show it doesn't take much to effect dramatic changes in how people behave when they drink.

These show that even when people are very drunk, if they are given an incentive - either financial reward or social approval - they are perfectly capable of remaining in complete control of their behaviour.

Read Kate Fox's full article from Oct 2011

Figures from 2006 show that the UK was not even among the top 10 per capita alcohol consumers in Europe. And alcohol consumption has been falling here for the past decade. Beer consumption has been declining for decades. And last year for the first time, wine sales fell. Even the worry about youth drinking may be overdone. 2010 NHS statistics showed that 55% of 11 to 15-year-olds have never drunk alcohol, an increase on previous years. Longton says these figures should give parents the confidence to be firm: "My children will say 'mummy everyone's doing it' but the statistics don't bear that out."

Bartlett says that exaggerating the problem can have negative effects. It leads to false "social norming" - people thinking that everyone else is binge drinking so why shouldn't they. "One reason university students go on a bender is because they overestimate the amount all their peers are drinking." But publishing the facts can challenge this. Some student unions have begun putting up posters giving the real drinking statistics for students, which are on average often far lower than expected. Once the true figure is displayed, students tailor their drinking accordingly. In other words, it doesn't do any good to hype up the problem.

Misell accepts that the UK is by no means at the top of the drinking league. But he argues that people are still drinking too much. "There's a big gap between the perception and reality of light drinking. For many it's three or four pints. But the advice from the Chief Medical officer is 3-4 units a day for a man and 2-3 for a woman. In some cases two pints would put you over the recommended limit."

Additional reporting by Lauren Everitt

 

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 948.

    Can I suggest that we enforce the law on serving drinks to anyone who is obviously underage or drunk. My local regularly ask people for ID so we dont get the "50 pints a night" kiddies. They also stop serving people before they get stupidly drunk... two simple actions, one very very good pub, no drink problems.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 947.

    928.pickle68
    Why not take off licenses away from shops that get caught selling alcohol to under age drinkers.
    ******
    Not the real problem.
    It only became cheap when the supermarket Barons got their hands on it after donating large sums to political partys.. (mainly Labour)
    Got the Licensing laws changed (Ministers Lobbying Fees) to their favour and grabbed 50% + of the market. Nice move.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 946.

    943.insert_name_here

    You're a comic genius! Seriously I'm not patronising or being condescending, you're actually pretty funny +1

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 945.

    This is very simple. On the spot fines for anyone caught drunk in public - let's say £50 first offence, £100 second and then jail or hard community service. Or set a breathaliser limit and fine accordingly - or both. Don't punish the people who drink responsibly with more costs - get the numpties who are incapable of setting their own boundaries and cause the problems for the rest of us.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 944.

    I am surprised the folks who want the "bargain basement" cheap stuff don't save a LOT of their money and simply brew their own beer. Dump the beer yeast, use wine yeast, add two extra bags of sugar and you have barley wine beer at around 12-14% - for about 20p a pint.

    I guess when the minimum price comes in, a lot of folks will simply bypass duty and DIY

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 943.

    @I-330
    you vill be shot! lol
    Ich mangled nicht. Und mein schwein nicht schwimmen.
    Obviously my german was learned from 'Allo 'Allo, as I can only believe some of the opinions on here were. Some of them are comedy genius. Electronic quota cards!? C'mon! That's pure gold right there.
    1/2 a bottle of wine every 3 nights? Why bother?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 942.

    Drink driving has been made socially unacceptable by advertising. Binge drinking has become acceptable for the same reason, every ad showing alcohol at the centre of parties. Stop the advertising, but PLSE ignore every cmpaignng team of hysterics and every self interested closed shop army like the BMA. No lives are saved and the NHS is doing its job when it treats smokers/drinkers/accident victims

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 941.

    @767 Jonny

    Oh dear, you really don't get it. Stop moaning and whingeing about people's suggestions (how do you know my idea won't work; are you that prescient?) and come up with an idea of your own. If you do, I might think about a temporrary work visa for you to my new country. But only if you behave, mind. Now get that noodle working and come up with something.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 940.

    A packet of cigarette has had a health warning for years. why not put a picture of a damaged liver and a warning message on every drink containing alcohol.

    Perhaps a further warning stating that children of parents with alcohol problem can suffer from various illnesses due to receiving defective genes.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 939.

    "Stop exaggerating the problem" - That's the main point. There is no massive problem, it's just another scare tactic to keep pounding away at our freedoms and the typical use of scare tactics to make it seem as if the government is doing something (about a problem that doesn't really exist.)

    Try solving some of society's real ills before this piddling matter.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 938.

    Perhaps patronising people who prefer pints prevents people pontificating points concerning pints.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 937.

    935.insert_name_here

    "Achtung! Ich haf ein fantastische idea"

    If that was meant to be Deutsch then you did a good job mangling the language, I'm a bit rusty but I think that should have read "Achtung! Ich habe eine fantastische idee"

  • Comment number 936.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 935.

    Achtung! Ich haf ein fantastische idea. Zose who drink booze vill be kollected from zer homes und taken via kubelwagen to ein wall und shot. Zose who disagree viz zis vill be kollected from zer homes und shot. Zose vizout homes vill be taken to homes, kollected and zen shot. Zen ve vill do ze same for ze fat people, zen ze 'lefties', zen ve vill microchip ze rest.
    Yours,
    D Kameron.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 934.

    Can't imagine how terrible University nightlife would be if the drinking age was 21

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 933.

    There is one obvious solution missing, probably because it was considered too radical. End the prohibition of some other, less harmful and less addictive recreational drugs, such as cannabis.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 932.

    Years ago the pub was the focal point of the community. Although it tended to be male dominated it was still a place for people to go to socialise. And then came the idiots who run our county - the Metroplitan Elite (both left and right) who taxed and taxed; thousands lost their jobs; communities suffered. Yet in Westminster cheap booze exists. Once more what they do is ok and what we do is not.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 931.

    It is time that people took responsibility for their own actions and behaviour. Forget about blaming society, the cost of living, the shortage of jobs and the recession as being the cause for the booze problems. Let us start with the individual's lack of self control and respect for others. The only person one can honestly blame for the problem is the drunk with a drink!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 930.

    926.instant_karma

    "I had you down as one of the stupids!"

    Shows what you know, I'm actually part of the Drinks Industry's clandestine conspiracy, sub contracted to scour the internet for posts relating to alcohol and promote alcohol abuse, just like you said! They pay people to do this stuff, however the currency is pints

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 929.

    @Ian Jay 922. They already do, its called alcohol duty. In fact alc duty that was taken by HMRC from April 2010-March 2011 totaled nearly 9.5billion pounds (www.hmrc.gov.uk/stats/tax_receipts/tax-nic-receipts-info-analysis.pdf) if you compare that to the 2.7billion it costs the NHS, that more than pays for it, in fact it even pays money to other parts of gov spending! A positive contribution?!

 

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