Thursday, September 8, 2011

Opposite effect

Alcohol Concern’s recent weasel words in support of pubs have highlighted again the claim that, in contrast to drinking at home, pubs provide a “controlled drinking environment”. Now, that’s another argument, but it’s worth saying it’s one I can’t remember ever hearing until ten or twelve years ago when pubs were already clearly losing substantial market share to the off-trade. Thirty years ago, those who got drunk overwhelmingly did so in pubs and clubs.

However, the stigmatisation of drinking promoted by the likes of Alcohol Concern is ironically likely to result in exactly the opposite of what they claim to want. The more that alcohol consumption becomes socially unacceptable, the less people are going to do it in the public sphere where it is obvious to others, and the more it will retreat into the home. I have mentioned before how a significant change in the pub scene over the past twenty years is how the solid middle classes are much less likely to drink in pubs than they used to be. Yet in how many comfortable homes is the question frequently asked “shall we crack open a second bottle of wine tonight?”, often by people who would consider going to the pub and drinking five pints of bitter distinctly disreputable.

Realistically, it is going to take a huge weight of public policy initiatives to bring about much reduction in British alcohol consumption over and above that which happens naturally from social change. Finland, which has some of the most draconian alcohol control laws in Europe, and even higher duties than the UK, still drinks only 17% less than we do on official figures, and only 6% less once unofficial sources are taken into account. But that drinking will increasingly be done out of the public gaze.