Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - November 2007
The best way for young people to learn how to drink responsibly is in the pub
GIVEN all the talk recently about the problems caused by underage drinking, it was not surprising that Tim Martin of Wetherspoonís raised a few eyebrows when he suggested we were being too strict in enforcing the eighteen age limit. Yet, when you look at it more closely, he does have a point. There are plenty of politicans and police officers urging clampdowns on underage drinking, but the vast majority of them will have had a drink in a pub before the age of eighteen and will say it did them no harm. Surely this is a distinctly hypocritical attitude.
In the past, before we had ID cards and sting operations, it was commonplace for sixteen and seventeen year-olds to drink in pubs. They knew they had to behave responsibly to avoid attracting too much attention to themselves and therefore this represented a controlled introduction to drinking. Is drinking cheap cider from the off-licence in the park and then going in the pub on your eighteenth birthday and getting blitzed a better alternative?
In reality, the line between responsible and irresponsible behaviour is often far from black and white, and it makes sense for the enforcement of the law to recognise this. Paradoxically, returning to the situation of twenty or so years ago where underage drinking in pubs was widely tolerated could well reduce societyís alcohol-related problems. Indeed, there could be an argument for changing the law to allow sixteen and seventeen year-olds to drink sub-4% ABV draught beer and similar drinks in pubs at 16, while continuing to clamp down on sales from off-licences.
Unrestricted access for children to pubs is in the interest neither of children themselves nor of adult pubgoers
THEREíS one pub I sometimes go in hoping for a quiet drink, but more often than I like my enjoyment is spoilt by howling babies and hyperactive toddlers. So I was heartened when, in another pub, a couple came in to the main bar area with a child of about three, and were politely asked by the bar staff to move to another (perfectly pleasant) room where children were welcome, which they did without demur. Itís also noticeable how a couple of local pubs that do not offer food have now put up signs by their door saying that over-18s only are admitted, suggesting they recognise their customers want an adults-only environment.
Itís one thing to take children out for a meal from time to time, but surely anyone with their interests at heart will accept that parents routinely dragging them into the pub while enjoying a few drinks isnít the best way to bring them up. The most anti-children attitude of all is to argue that children should be indiscriminately allowed into all areas of all pubs at all times.
As with many other things, the best way for the pub trade to approach children is to have a diversity of provision Ė some pubs that are family-friendly, others than are adult-oriented, and where appropriate to have the same choice within an individual pub. The latter will often be the best way to please as many customers as possible and thus maximise overall trade.