Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - June 2004

* Blown Off Course *

The current hysteria about binge-drinking could scupper licensing reform

THE LICENSING ACT that was expected to usher in liberalised pub opening hours is now on the statute book, and full implementation is scheduled for next year, once local authorities have put the necessary arrangements in place. But, on the way, it has sailed into unexpectedly turbulent waters.

There has been a mounting wave of hysteria about the problems caused by “binge drinking”, which Tony Blair has just described as “the new British disease”. The Association of Chief Police Officers have expressed serious concerns that longer hours will lead to more violence and disorder on the streets. Obviously the root causes of these problems lie in the drinking culture of town-centre circuits, rather than the hours as such, but until the nature of that culture changes, it must be admitted that the police may have a point.

In this climate there is a real risk that the reform will be blown off course. It is not difficult to see the guidance issued by local authorities saying that very few licensed premises will be permitted to open for much longer than they can at present. The vision of local pubs staying open until one or two in the morning to allow the evening session to wind down gently will remain just a pipe-dream. What we are likely to end up with is a much more costly, intrusive and bureaucratic system of regulation that delivers no real benefits for traditional pubs and their customers, even though they bear little or no responsibility for our current alcohol-related problems.

* Drink Too Cheap Shock *

Pre-pub guzzling of cheap take-home booze is now a major factor in alcohol-related disorder

THE CURRENT “binge-drinking” epidemic is usually blamed on irresponsible pub operators, but a factor that many licensees have commented on is that young drinkers are often getting tanked up at home on cheap supermarket booze before heading out for the night. The gap between off- and on-trade prices is growing all the time, and, if you’re not too fussy about brands, or take maximum advantage of special offers, you can get drunk remarkably cheaply.

It's generally reckoned that a bottle of whisky, which contains 28 “units” of alcohol, is, if consumed in one session, enough to provide a lethal dose to anyone but a very hardened drinker. You can easily buy a bottle of full-strength economy-brand Scotch for £7.99. For about the same price, you can get three bottles of cheap wine, or eight cans of super-strength lager, both of which would have the same effect.

While this would undoubtedly fall foul of European competition law, might it not be a good idea to impose a minimum price - say 35p - per unit (10 ml) of alcohol? That would make the cheapest bottle of full-strength whisky £10, a 12% bottle of cheapo vino £3.15, and a 500 ml can of 8% lager £1.40. That wouldn't harm any pub (even Holts and Sam Smiths are well over 50p a unit), but it would make a serious difference to those who are after the cheapest drink they can find, and would make it less worthwhile to produce poor-quality products that sell purely on “bangs per buck”.

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