The Losh Cause
The media-led moral panic in the UK over the introduction of liberalised licensing laws shows just how easily the drinks industry can be cast as malevolent and pernicious. Chris Losh sees this as an over-reaction but asks if the industry itself must take some of the blame when it is seen in this light.
Is alcohol taking the place of nicotine as the vice we love to hate?
I ask because the kind of vitriol poured out in the British press over the last few weeks as the government's 24-hour-drinking licences bill comes into effect has been hysterical even by the standards of the Outraged of Fleet Street leader writers.
I remember when pubs made the move for 12-hour opening in the 1990s, from 11am to 11pm. That was a big change - in many ways bigger than that of allowing pubs to open their doors until the early hours of the morning, since it established a possibility of continuous drinking that simply hadn't been available before.
Yet this bold step was largely heralded as bringing the UK into step with the rest of the world, not as an incitement to incipient alcoholism. Certainly there was none of the vitriolic hysteria promising juvenile drunkenness, street anarchy and six-year-old binge drinkers that we've seen this time around.
Meanwhile, in France the government announced this week that it wants to put health warnings on alcoholic drinks similar to those on cigarettes. While even in Spain, one of the most booze-friendly of European nations, the government has whacked the spirits duty up by over 10% in less than 12 months.
For years, the industry has been calling for duty rates to be harmonised, but moving low-tax regimes up towards parity with places like Sweden is probably not what they had in mind.
Yet it's hard for the drinks industry to complain about such moves without looking like it wants to sell vodka at €1 a shot to the under-fives. Much as the tobacco lobby found itself with few friends when it was getting the treatment from governments all over the world, the drinks industry too finds it hard to defend itself.
So yes, indeed. Alcohol is the new tobacco. Which is particularly tough, since there's no moral equivalence between the two. Smoking in public demonstrably harms other people, whether they smoke or not: drinking alcohol doesn't. It is, genuinely, a personal decision. Yes, some people can act thoughtlessly, stupidly or dangerously under the influence of alcohol, but there are laws to stop them from their worst excesses and they can be prosecuted for breaking them.
The problem with alcohol, I suspect, is not so much that there are more 16-year-olds getting out of control than there used to be (cast your mind back to when you were that age - we've all made mistakes experimenting with drink), but that the industry has been too slow in looking like it wants to address the problem.
Even now, while all the big companies dutifully parrot government-approved messages of sensible drinking, the imperative to make cash remains strong. Diageo's decision to sponsor the McLaren Formula One team, for instance, might make rock solid commercial sense, and it's clearly not illegal. But morally it's highly questionable as to whether it's a good idea to associate booze with driving at breakneck speed.
And this is probably the crux of the matter. The drinks industry, you feel, may have bought into the letter of the law on responsible drinking, but it hasn't quite been convinced by its spirit (no pun intended). Pub chains still go for 'happy hour' binge fests to get punters through the door, drinks producers will always find ways of sailing close to the wind to attract the 18-year-old drinker.
Which is why, all in all, given the current climate, the decision to extend licensing hours in the UK is such a brave one. The industry isn't whiter than white on this issue, so if the UK's drinkers let themselves down over the coming weeks, the press will have a lot of rope with which to hang them. Who knows, God forbid, it might not just be cigarettes that are banned from pubs in the years to come.
Pint of Coke, anyone?
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