There’s no argument that excessive drinking is a real problem, and one that I would have to admit to having been part of. Official statistics indicate at least 1 in 4 adults drinks in a way that’s hazardous to their health, and the cost to the NHS across the UK of treating alcohol related illness is estimated to be £20 billion.
The SNP solution however has been to turn to the tried and true methods of governments keen to look like they’re doing something-scapegoating and trying to look tough.
The biggest headline grabbing part of their proposals is to ban under 21s from buying drink in off licences (they would still be able to drink in pubs).
I think that we should oppose outright this plan to discriminate against Scotland’s youth in this way. It’s blatant discrimination, but not only that, I also think it won’t contribute to tackling the real roots of the problem.
We need to try and examine why we have the kind of alcohol economy we have in 2008. In 1989 the Thatcher government fundamentally changed the structure of the alcohol industry in the UK by passing laws preventing brewers from owning more than 2000 pubs.
Previously the brewers had owned and controlled pubs, making sure they had a monopoly on beer sold there. They subsisted primarily off men drinking a couple of pints after work. This was the context that men were introduced to drinking-with older men and workmates. But after the Tories destruction of British industry and the traditional working class the brewer’s traditional sources of profit went with them.
The idea behind Thatcher’s move was that it would break up monopolies and allow competition to flourish. But in fact what happened was that the brewers created new entities, known as PubCos. These companies took a portion of the brewer’s management, and were given sweetheart deals to buy up their pubs. These then went on to become the massive pub chains familiar in any city centre anywhere in the UK.
In 1989 the two biggest PubCos owned around 300, 000 pubs, half of the country’s total. Today the two biggest alone own a quarter of all pubs between them. Meanwhile the six biggest brewers, which are all now part of multinational corporations, own no pubs but produce more of the beer drunk-eight out of every ten pints.
The people running these pub chains know what they’re doing, and that is applying the marketing strategies of fast food to selling alcohol. The methods that have taken Pizza Express and Pret a Manger to every high street have also brought us Wetherspoons, Scream bars and Yates. These chains refer to drinkers in their marketing strategies as traffic, and are solely interested in getting people through, drinking, out and replaced by more.
The other factor that needs to be taken into account, which happened on a similar timeline, is the rise of rave culture and young people moving away from drinking towards ecstasy and water. This caused major consternation for the alcohol companies, who decided they must come up with a strategy to compete with pills.
Their solution was alcopops. In June 1995 Bass launched Hooper’s Hooch, an alcoholic lemonade. Within a month there was Merrydown’s Two Dogs, and by the end of the year Thronlodge launched Mrs Puckers and Carlsberg-Tetley had Lemonhead. Now every alcohol company produces some form of alcopop, loaded with sugar and designed to appeal to people without prior experience of alcohol and attract youth to drinking.
The alcohol industry in the past 20 years has seen extraordinary consolidation into multinational corporations, all with relationships with the ever burgeoning PubCos. To take one example, in Nottingham between 1997 and 2003 the capacity of licensed premises jumped from 65, 000 people to 110, 000, a pattern that is replicated elsewhere.
I’m not trying to idealise pubs prior to the Thatcher induced changes, but a pub that is controlled by a local landlord is more likely to know their customers and perhaps take considerations into account apart from selling drink. And it’s also not to argue that pubs now are acting wholly irresponsibly, but it’s ridiculous to try and claim that the heavily marketed and corporate finance backed pub chains have nothing to do with the binge drinking culture that has developed in Britain.
The SNP’s proposals won’t stop under 21s who want to drink from doing so. They’ll get someone to buy it for them, just as under agers do now. But probably a bigger impact is it will drive people into the pub. The government argues that drinking is more regulated in pubs, but I don’t think that driving people into the hands of the PubCos is going to be a solution.
It’s a tried and tested tactic to scapegoat youth for social problems. Scotland’s youth are some of the most disenchanted people with the political process and the various charlatan big business parties, and so are unlikely to vote. Binge drinking is something that affects many more than just under 21s, and this measure of discrimination is going to do nothing to tackle it.
To put forward some other positive ideas, I would suggest putting a stop to the mergers and consolidation in the alcohol industry, stopping the emergence of corporate giants determined to keep us drinking. An immediate ban on all alcohol advertising would be a big help as well. And prevent the onward march of the PubCos swallowing up more local pubs and controlling the entire market.
But ultimately we need to look at why people want to drink so much every weekend. Ask anyone in the pub and they’ll probably cite how hard they have to work throughout the week. People in the UK work the longest hours of any workforce in Europe. Our jobs, particularly for young people, are hard, stressful and precarious. There are no rights or organisation for workers, and many of the jobs are “McJobs” working for companies contributing nothing socially useful.
Faced with such an alienating and frustrating situation, what options are there for people to use their free time? Facilities for youth and general municipal sports or recreation facilities have been sold off and under funded. The entertainment that is available is privately owned and expensive. And our cities are filled with chain pubs. Given the economic and political choices taken by governments and the alcohol industry in recent years, is it any wonder we have a worsening problem with alcohol? And is scapegoating young people the way to solve it?
SSY is proposing to mount a campaign on the SNP’s proposals, demanding that this discriminatory measure is not brought in and instead real steps are taken to tackle Scotland’s alcohol problem.