30: Free drinks!
The merits of alcohol licensing reform
The problem: the threat of alcohol abuse
The closer they are to the Arctic Circle, it seems, the greater the tendency for national governments to intervene to limit people's freedom to buy alcoholic drinks. But bans and rigid controls tend to encourage abuse and binge drinking. Applying for licences is also a time-consuming, expensive, and anti-competitive process - often, indeed, a corrupt one too.
The idea: deregulate consumption
Increasingly, though, countries have chosen to relax the licensing restrictions and the hours pubs and other licensed premises can sell alcohol. The focus has turned to better staff training in licensed premises, and graduated penalties to curb alcohol abuse.
As John Stuart Mill argued in his essay On Liberty in 1859:
"The limitation in number... of beer and spirit houses, for express purposes of rendering them more difficult to access... not only exposes all to an inconvenience, because there are some by whom the facility would be abused, but is suited only to a state of society in which the labouring classes are avowedly treated as children..."
We are now all members of the 'labouring classes', so is it not time to rethink our puritancial love-hate relationship with alcohol?
Results: more freedom, less abuse
There is little reason to expect that restrictive measures aimed at lowering total alcohol consumption will reduce alcohol abuse. Canada and several Scandinavian countries have implemented such polices - which include high taxation on alcohol, state control or ownership of retail outlets, restrictions on opening hours, the outlawing of certain kinds of alcoholic drink -yet they all still suffer from a high incidence of alcohol-related problems.
In Scotland the licensing acts have been progressively liberalized since 1976. Once, the country had the most restrictive rules of any part of the United Kingdom. Public houses were forced to close in the afternoon and shut promptly at 10pm. On Sundays, alcoholic drinks could be served only to bona fide travellers (though in response, enterprising coach companies organized evening 'bona fide' trips to neighbouring towns so that their client drinkers could truthfully swear that they had indeed been travelling).
Following the 1976 reforms, permitted opening hours were relaxed if local magistrates consented. Some local magistrates interpreted this to mean that 24-hour opening was now permissible, and Scotland went from being the most restricted part of the United Kingdom to being its most liberal in terms of alcohol consumption. Licensing rules were further relaxed in 1990, so that it is now possible to find a pub open at any hour of the day in a city like Edinburgh or Glasgow.
Early scepticism about the effects of this relaxation proved largely unjustified. In fact the Scots drank less after the liberalization, and consumed their drink over a longer period. This in turn helped reduce last-minute binge drinking (known in Australia as the 'five-o'clock swill') and drunkenness on the street. The spread of closing times between different public houses allowed police resources to be used more effectively, instead of being overstretched around the universal 10pm closing time. But drink-related arrests have fallen. So too have drink-related diseases and injuries. Meanwhile, Scotland's bars, which used to be dark haunts for dedicated drinkers only, have opened themselves up to families and many have effectively become licensed café/restaurants on the European model.
One drawback of late-night alcohol consumption, however, is that there is often a shortage of convenient transport because most non-drinkers are already at home and there is too little trade for bus and rail operators. So there can still be problems with young people leaving late-night venues.
The Netherlands has found an answer to this particular problem. In the past, the Dutch experienced many problems with drunken behaviour and violence, particularly after the last bars closed, late in the evening. Lack of transport was seen as one of the main causes of frustration and potential conflict. Accordingly, a new initiative was launched: discotheques applying for late night licences were required to provide 'disco buses' to ferry revellers home in the early hours of the morning. Venues such as the Metropol Club in Zandijk, which claims to be the largest in Europe, even provides its customers with a free breakfast at 6.00 am to nourish them in readiness for their journey home. As a result of adopting these policies, fights and other forms of public disorder have been drastically reduced.
In the Netherlands, as in Scotland, 'free closing' experiments have also proved highly successful. In some neighbourhoods, premises serving alcohol were allowed to trade at any time they wished. In other locations, licensed premises were allowed to stay open subject to a number of requirements related to noise levels and the potential impact on local residents. This experiment, which began in 1987, has led to a substantial reduction in drink-related crime and the police are among its most enthusiastic supporters.
The Republic of Ireland has also moved to liberalize its licensing laws, abolishing the distinction between summer and winter trading and allowing licensed premises and clubs to open later.
Following a white paper of April 2000, licensing laws in the United Kingdom were being liberalized still further, so that they are comparable to the liberal regimes that prevail in France, Spain, and Italy. But through taxation, alcohol prices remain high, and every day, ferry sailings across the English Channel are full of British consumers taking a 'booze cruise' to stock up their car with the much cheaper French and Belgian beer (and cigarettes). Some sources argue that one in seven bottles or cans of beer consumed in England are in fact brought in, legally or illegally, from the European Continent.
Assessment: laid-back Europeans
Imposing strict licensing laws, curbs on advertising and heavy taxation on alcohol, as northerly countries have traditionally done, is of little or negative value in curbing alcohol abuse. It merely encourages smuggling, covert production and binge drinking.
The aim of liberalization policies as far as they affect alcohol is to curb abuse. But people in the more liberalized countries of southern Europe appear to have far more responsible attitudes. In Italy, for example, there is no phrase for a 'good drinker' (meaning one who routinely drinks to excess) as there is in the United Kingdom: drinking is not seen as a macho activity. Nor do people visit one another, or go out in the evening, solely to drink. Although people in Spain drink roughly as much as the British, they do so at a relaxed pace, and getting drunk is not the main object of an evening.
If responsible adults want to take their children to premises serving alcohol for lunch, then it can be argued that the state has no business preventing them. In many southern European countries, children sip alcohol at meals from an early age; drinking is seen as an activity connected with eating, and children learn to handle it more responsibly than their northern neighbours.
And if, similarly, adults want to stay late into the evening at bars and nightclubs, then provided they do not cause harm or nuisance to others, it is hard to see why the state should get involved. And indeed, the experience of those countries with more liberal licensing regimes suggests that there are very good health and public order reasons why it should not.
For further information:
- For an excellent review of the UK debate on alcohol, see Mason, Douglas (1986) Time to Call Time (download PDF 63kb): Adam Smith Institute (London) www.adamsmith.org.
- Anderson, Digby, Drinking to your Health, Social Affairs Unit (London)
- The Amsterdam Group (1993) Alcoholic Beverages and European Society.
- UK government white paper, April 2000. Time for Reform: Proposals for the modernization oƒ our licensing laws: CM4696.
- The Portman Group (www.portman-group.org.uk) publishes a wide range of studies on promoting the sensible consumption of alcohol: see for example, Marsh, Peter, and Fox Kilby, Kay (1992) Drinking and Public Disorder.
- For producers' views, see also the Scotch Whisky Association (www.scotch-whisky.org.uk), and the Beer and Pub Association (www.beerandpub.com).
- For information on the distorting effects of alcohol taxation in Europe, see Bracewell-Milnes, Barry (1993) A Disorderly House and (1994) A House Divided: Adam Smith Institute (London) www.adamsmith.org.
Copyright 2002: Adam Smith Institute
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