The imposition of the minimum 40p charge on a unit of alcohol in England has garnered mixed reactions. Some say this along with the rest of the proposed ‘Responsibility Deal’ is a sham and will do nothing to actually curb the so-called drinking epidemic or to improve public health. The more optimistic ones feel that it is a start and it is regulations like these that can help sort out the problem. But what exactly is the problem?
The problem is that people are increasingly consuming copious amounts of alcohol. The availability of extremely cheap spirits seems to be fuelling excessive drinking, which in turn gives rise to violence and antisocial behaviour in city centres across England. Go to any A & E department on a Friday or Saturday night and you’re sure to find evidence to support this notion.
The entire nation is gripped in something of a moral panic about this seemingly worsening problem. It is clearly not right that a pointless and self-destructive act such as binge drinking should drain our resources, including the already overburdened NHS. Not to mention the atmosphere of fear, unpleasantness and mayhem it generates among the population.
Imposing a 40p threshold on alcohol will certainly increase profits for retailers but cannot single-handedly help curb the culture of binge drinking across the country. If the trend of heavy and mindless alcohol consumption is to be controlled, the only way forward is tougher laws that aim to fight the problem on all fronts. This does not necessarily mean the imposition of new laws but perhaps a strengthening of existing legislation and a stricter implementation of regulations.
Alcohol is the drug of choice among young people, and though our legal drinking age is 18, underage drinking is rampant across England. Tougher laws could be imposed and the existing Parenting Orders could hold parents and guardians of young offenders more culpable than they are doing at the moment. This could help to reduce underage drinking and crime significantly.
Some studies have shown that children who began drinking as early as 14 and 15, a sight only too common in our country, are more likely to develop long-term alcoholism than people who began drinking at a more mature age of 21. Increasing the legal age for drinking from 18 to perhaps 21, as it is in many other countries and in most states in the USA, may be a step in the right direction.
In 2003, the Licensing Act was passed in England, which after coming into effect in 2005 meant that the establishments that serve alcohol as well as off-licenses could theoretically remain open 24 hours a day, as opposed to the earlier time limit of 2300 hours or 11pm. While this was a controversial change, supporters of the new law claim that imposing a time limit in fact increased binge drinking and forced heavily drunken people out into the streets all at once, and this fuelled crime and other problems.
The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 and its predecessor, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, addressed the problem of public drunkenness, among other offences. A civil remedy known as the Anti-Social Behaviour Order or ASBO, is put in place to discourage offenders of small crimes that may not warrant a criminal prosecution.
ASBOs, which are currently on their way out in favour of what the Home Secretary calls ‘community based’ social control policies, could be brought back into the picture for people who are known to be involved in alcohol-related crime. Banning known ‘problem individuals’ from local watering holes and public places can only help minimise repeat offences.
Imposing a minimum price on alcohol may well elevate the cost of excessively cheap ciders and wines, the kind commonly consumed for binge drinking, but it will certainly not help to curb the culture of heavy drinking in our society without a stricter implementation of existing laws. Lastly, yes, tough laws and their proper enforcement will help control the problem, but if a more long-term solution is to be achieved, it is important to understand and deal with the cultural factors that lead to a society where rioting, looting shops and drinking till you pass out is considered to be entertaining and fun.