Thousands are 'at risk of alcohol death' say doctors

This report is yet another high level intervention from health care professionals in relation to the harm caused by alcohol in the UK.

The headline figure of 250,000 deaths from alcohol related illness and accidents predicted over the next 20 years, is naturally a worst-case scenario delivered to grab the headlines.

As I have repeatedly outlined in similar articles, the solutions to alcohol related problems are going to demand a more imaginative solution than crude regulation, restrictive minimum pricing and prohibition. The question will be, is any one person / organisation in a position to control all the elements required to achieve the overall goal.

What that goal should surely be is to reduce the harm from alcohol consumption without overtly disadvantaging those who drink in moderation, while allowing businesses to compete on an even playing field to offer a product and service which attracts the public to vibrant licensed premises.

It’s that simple…

If only it was; the fact is, the playing field is far from level, take the supermarkets as one key example. They actually hold one of the essential keys to unlock some of the challenges posed by excessive alcohol consumption, but they are also cut-throat businesses driven by profit and are incredibly successful; we should not be seeking to stifle such success.

Supermarkets use alcohol to drive sales, because that’s what the public demand. They also compete intensely amongst themselves and it would be a brave CEO of a supermarket who acted unilaterally and a corrupt CEO who conspired with other to ‘price fix’.

In my role as a Purple Flag Assessor, we visit town centres across the UK to carry out assessments on their night-time economy; this naturally involves viewing many licensed premises and meeting / observing the work of many of the different agencies involved in the night-time economy including the police, cctv operators, licensing authorities, town centre managers, voluntary groups, EHO and many many more.

I made an interesting observation recently which proves my point that the solutions to the problems of alcohol are complex. Comparing two towns, which must remain nameless so as not to compromise my role, (we will call them imaginatively Town A and Town B) demonstrates this point. For this purpose I must ignoring some of the complexities of the assessment process for Purple Flag, which takes in very many criteria than looking purely at how the licensed premises are managed by the local authorities.

Town A – Uses strong regulation and operates at arm’s length from local licensed businesses, it prevents further licensed premises from opening and operating past midnight. Several premises have been closed which leaves a minimal number open to the public after 23.00. The result of this is that those which are open (two of which are part of a large chain with access to expensive lawyers), are overwhelmed, extremely busy and compete with each other on a price basis. Lower margins mean they need to compete to get the most customers.

Town B – The local authority and the police work in close conjunction with businesses, who through their umbrella organisation provide significant funding to help manage the late-night economy. The police are very proactive in working with and encouraging licensed premises to raise standards; this has resulted in voluntary agreements between the vast majority of premises to co-operate on many different levels. Town B provides a significant number of licensed premises, providing a variety of offerings; they are busy, but not overcrowded. The vast majority of the premises use quality and diversity to attract customers, in turn this diversity attracts more people to the town as a whole. Higher margins because price is not the key driver, means that each premises does not need to be at bursting point, to meet their financial targets.

Think about the drinking habits in these different environments. People who go to a premises which is rammed to capacity, where it takes 30 minutes to get served at the bar, are much more likely to buy multiple drinks when they do get served and these drinks are more likely to include spirits / shots to avoid having to queue again; people who have multiple drinks are more likely to drink more quickly.

People who know they can get served quickly, are more likely to buy the drink they actually want, beer, cider, wine etc., and drink it at a pace they are comfortable with, before deciding what drink (if any) to have next knowing they will be served quickly.

So Town A may actually be increasing the consumption of alcohol per person by restricting the number of licensed premises and therefore making those premises whose lawyers frighten off the regulators, much busier than they might otherwise be; increasing by consequence the instances of irresponsible drinking. Town B on the other hand will be much busier overall, but by spreading the load, they make control of those using the town centre easier and reduce the worst effects of the vertical drinking venues.

Ok this idea does nothing to deal with the problems of pre-loading and cheap alcohol from supermarkets, I’ll leave those arguments for another time, but it demonstrates that the solution to the problems alcohol presents are complex. The ultimate solution must come from central government, as they are the only ones with the scope / reach and clout to tackle the big players and their lawyers, but they must not choose the simple option thinking it will resolve all the challenges alcohol consumption can present.

We keep saying it is a complicated business and requires an innovative solution not a blunt instrument of regulation.

Maybe they should start with training which is woefully inadequate in the sector, amongst those who sell alcohol, who regulate it and the consumers themselves; stop sensationalising everything and treat people with some respect, give them the facts in a way they can understand and regulate only against those who abuse their position as a retailer of a controlled drug; which after all alcohol is, as the medical professionals correctly say.

Positive reinforcement would be an excellent starting point, help retailers become responsible in their business model and systems of work and reward good retailers while regulating out the poor operators out there. That way government can get the sector working in partnership with them rather than getting both good and bad alcohol retailers on the defensive.

After all what good does a fine alone do? It means that the retailer has to work harder to make that income back. Adding mandatory training into the mix of consequences, not only means that the retailer realises they have made a mistake, but also helps them get better and understand why it is important not to make the same mistake again.

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Source – BBC 

Date – 21st February 2011

Submitted by – Peter Mayhew


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