Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - December 1996

* Drink Sensibly - Go to the Pub *

This column has on many occasions been highly critical of anti-alcohol lobby groups, who have often been their own worst enemies by condemning moderate drinking in a way that most people would find laughable. When the government admitted last year that an extra three and a half pints a week wouldn't do you any harm, some of them reacted as though this was going to unleash a torrent of drunken depravity. Well, it hasn't reached my local yet.

But anyone who wants to encourage the appreciation of pubs and alcoholic drinks must recognise that, for a minority of people, the abuse of alcohol does lead to serious problems - damaging health, undermining family relationships, causing accidents on the roads and encouraging domestic violence. We can't afford to adopt an attitude of "let's get everyone happily pissed".

However, none of the traditional solutions proposed by the anti-drink lobby - such as increased price and reduced availability - are realistic options today, and in any case have been discredited as effective measures. Health warnings tend to be ignored by those most at risk. There is, though, one key area of public policy where a real difference could be made, without adversely affecting the interests of moderate drinkers - encourage people to go to the pub!

In recent years there has been a big increase in the proportion of alcohol consumed at home. It's cheaper to drink at home, you're not limited to pub measures, you're not shown the door if you're under age, and there's no-one except possibly your loved ones to tell you when to stop. You've paid for all the booze in advance, and at the end of the evening you're already home and can either crawl up the stairs or crash out on the sofa. (This does not, I hasten to add, represent daily life at Curmudgeon Towers).

In contrast, you have to make some effort to get to the pub. You have to pay for each round of drinks as you get it. If you drink faster than others, it will be remarked upon; if you get drunk, or if you're under eighteen, the bar staff, if they're doing their job, won't serve you. And at the end of the evening, you have to get home again. That's not to say people can't get wrecked in pubs, but it's more difficult, more expensive and more public than doing it at home.

The pub, in short, is a "socially-controlled environment" in sociology-speak, whereas the home often isn't. Of course, this applies much less to young people's designer bars than to real pubs which appeal to all age groups.

Shouldn't it therefore be a central plank of public alcohol policy that, within an overall static level of consumption, the proportion of alcohol sold in the on-trade should be increased, and also that a factor in the granting and renewing of licenses should be whether establishments aim to, and do, attract customers of mixed ages? It would require some lateral thinking on the part of legislators, but it's not impossible. For starters, why does every corner shop have to have an off licence? It's a challenge, but achieving this aim would make a significant contribution towards reducing alcohol-related problems in society, and this is something that the more responsible anti-drink lobbyists are starting to accept.

* Spotting or Campaigning? *

A bus-spotter's heaven is a fleet comprising a varied mixture of rare, elderly and probably unreliable buses. Such a fleet, though, is unlikely to provide a good public transport service. Similarly, a beer spotter's ideal pub, with fifteen obscure beers probably in dubious condition, does not serve most real ale drinkers well. Beer-spotting has no more to do with campaigning for real ale than bus-spotting has with campaigning for better public transport.

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