Campaigners keep eye on efforts in UK to tackle drink culture

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With moves afoot in the UK to try to combat the dysfunctional consumption of alcohol, responsible-drinking campaigner Sir Ian Gilmore says similar problems are evident in Ireland, writes Brian O’Connell.  

Last week, up to 10 local authorities in Manchester proposed a new bylaw that would set a minimum price for alcohol for the first time. The law would affect all pubs, supermarkets and off-licences and mean that each unit of alcohol could not be sold for less than 50p.

The northwest of England has particular problems with alcohol, with up to 1.3 million adults thought to drink in a hazardous or dysfunctional way. Irish public health campaigners, who have long called for similar measures to tackle alcohol-related problems in Ireland, are closely watching the proposed law change.

While the Scottish Parliament recently failed to pass minimum pricing legislation, the UK government is currently looking at ways to outlaw “below-cost” sales of alcohol. These moves come on the back of aggressive marketing and cut-price sales campaigns in the UK, mainly in supermarkets and off-licences, similar to ones witnessed here in Ireland.

One leading UK supermarket chain recently announced plans to sell wine for 99p a bottle, and one of the first to criticise the move was Sir Ian Gilmore, head of the Royal College of Physicians. Calling the move “grossly irresponsible”, he added it would inevitably exacerbate problems for Britain’s 1.5 million alcoholics.

For much of his career, Gilmore has lead the public health campaign for responsible drinking practices, and earlier this year, his efforts were formally recognised by the Queen with a knighthood.

His experience may help inform public debate in Ireland around more liberal licensing laws and maintaining current advertising criteria for the drinks industry.

“I believe we should be looking to having at the very least a 9pm watershed in the UK on alcohol advertising, with a view to a complete ban. It’s so hard to exclude a time when children are not watching television,”he says.

“On the whole, the best evidence is that a ban would help reduce per capita consumption and the amount we drink. That cannot be good for the drinks industry who have their shareholders to answer to, so there is a conflict there.”

Gilmore also sees many similarities between drinking patterns in the UK, (where as many as 40,000 people die each year from alcohol-related issues), and Ireland, which has one of the highest weekly binge drinking rates in the EU.

“Ireland has a terrible record over the last decade in alcohol-related health issues, while during the same period the price of alcohol has slumped. Supermarkets are now selling alcohol below profit. I was at a meeting in Brussels recently, and it was pointed out that 10 per cent of the population in Germany drink 51 per cent of the alcohol. In Ireland and the UK, more than half the people who consume alcohol do so above safe recommended limits. What other product that is abused by more than half the people would be treated so liberally?”

With continued calls from Ireland’s drinks industry, particularly the nightclub sector, for relaxation of our licensing laws and longer opening times, Gilmore warns that the extension to the opening hours in the UK in 2005 has done little to alleviate the problem. If anything, he says, the 24-hour availability of alcoholin certain premises has put a further strain on frontline health professionals. “Tony Blair tried to abolish closing times and turn society into a wine-sipping continental cafe culture, but abolishing closing times has had the converse effect.

“Studies have shown a large rise in AE attendances, and they are now being spread over the whole night. That makes it more difficult to deal with for health professionals. The only ones who have benefited from more liberal opening hours have been supermarkets and off-licences. People are going into supermarkets at 3am on their way home and buying bottles of vodka. It used to be that one in 10 drinks bought were in off-trade premises. Now it’s almost one to one.”

Why is it that both Ireland and the UK appear to have a somewhat problematic relationship with alcohol? “I’m not a sociologist, but generally speaking the further north in Europe you go, the more the patterns exists for drinking without food. If you look at places like Italy, Spain and Portugal roughly 70 per cent of alcohol consumption is with meals. In places like the UK and Ireland, 80 per cent of the drinking is without food, so it’s almost the exact opposite. So there are long standing cultural differences stretching back hundreds if not thousands of years.”

Finally, Gilmore believes that there are fundamental changes to drinking patterns even in the past half century, which have fuelled both Ireland’s and the UK’s sometimes dysfunctional relationship with alcohol, particularly among young people.

“There is something in the binge drinking culture of young people where it is associated with heroics and risk taking. When I was a student we went out to have a good time. On occasion we drank too much, but we did not go out with the aim of getting drunk. That’s the difference between then and now.”


Source: The Irish Times, 10/08/10
Journalist: Brian O’Connell