Tories' alcohol taxes won't cure binge drinking


Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling wants to tax alcopops and curb pub hours. Neither will stop binge drinking.

When problems like binge drinking crop up, lots of people from 24-hour news channels thrust microphones under the noses of politicians and ask what they are going to do about it. Naturally, they say they're going to take 'tough' action, right away. But often their 'tough' action is only tough on the symptoms, not the disease. And quite often, the politicians' actions have exactly the opposite effect of the one intended.

Here's an example. As Fraser Nelson reported a year ago, when the Rudd government in Australia jacked up the price of pre-mixed drinks by 70%, consumption fell by 30% but spirit sales jumped by 46% as the kids mixed their own. And of course the kids poured themselves bigger measures than you got in the average alcopop. The result was a 10% rise in alcohol consumption.

Australia also used to have the ‘five o’clock swill’ as pub customers drank as much as they could before the official 5pm closing time. I remember the same happening in Scotland, where pubs were open a few hours at lunchtime, then from just 5pm-10pm in the evening. They didn't even open at all on Sundays. After Scotland deregulated in 1978, allowing 24-hour opening, everything improved – there was less drunkenness, less violence, an easier job for the police, and a fall in alcohol-related illnesses. Pubs were no longer just male drinking holes, but started selling food and becoming much more welcoming to families.

Politicians who want to seem ‘tough’ on binge drinking would be better focusing on the real, cultural cause. Alcohol is far cheaper in France and they drink at all hours, but they don’t have anything like our problems. Instead of an instant reaction for the microphones, our politicians would be better to understand why it is that young people go out binge drinking. Maybe it's because we have regulated our pubs so much that young people can't afford to drink in them. So they are no longer drinking under adult supervision, but go and get smashed on supermarket lager instead. Maybe the decline in the nuclear family, thanks to perverse welfare rules, also means that kids never learn to handle the joys and the dangers of alcohol as they do in France. Maybe it's bad state education or a nanny state that just picks up the mess with no come-back for kids or parents. Whatever the cause, slapping on new taxes and bringing in regulation isn't going to stop the effect.

Dr Butler's book The Rotten State of Britain is now in paperback.