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Battle of the binge drinking

22 May 2008

Claims and counter-claims are fuelling the war of words over who's to blame for the UK's perceived binge-drinking culture. But one thing's for sure: while pubs are going out of business at an alarming rate, supermarkets are thriving. Martyn Cornell reports

The pub is under siege. Ever-rising costs on everything from food to utilities and insurance, increasing red tape, higher taxes, the smoking ban, constant scrutiny from police and local authorities, and customers who now have less discretionary money to spend on going out, all have contributed to an environment that saw between 1,400 and 1,600 pubs close last year, upwards of four a day.

Among all the other problems it faces, the pub is also accused of helping to encourage "Britain's binge-drinking culture", supposedly through tactics such as "happy hour" promotions, selling wine in ever-larger glasses and taking advantage of liberalised licensing laws to open later and later.

But while the British Medical Association and other campaigning organisations have been calling for firm action - including yet-higher taxes on alcohol, bringing back shorter opening hours and restrictions on drink promotions - to tackle the harm they perceive as springing from Britain's supposed too-high consumption of alcohol, there is good evidence to suggest that our alleged binge-drinking culture is largely a factor of how you present the figures that alcohol consumption in the UK is actually falling and that if you want to promote responsible drinking, then the pub, as a controlled and safe environment ruled by strict laws against serving either the underaged or those already drunk, is an institution to be encouraged rather than persecuted.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the alcohol debate is that alcohol's supporters feel instinctively on the defensive, because it cannot be denied that some people misuse alcohol, and a tiny minority abuse it. That abuse harms them and those around them. Alcohol has its downsides: a few people's lives are badly affected by it.

But as Nick Bish, chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR), whose members control about half the UK's pubs and bars, points out, the same can be said of the motor car. Alcohol has been part of our culture for thousands of years, enjoyed for its role in sociability and celebration. "By and large," as Bish says, "alcohol is good."

The second big problem in the alcohol debate is the way the anti-alcohol lobby succeeds in manipulating the terms of the discussion. "Binge-drinking" is not found as an expression before the end of the 1960s, and when it was first used it meant a specific type of serious alcoholic, someone who would stay off drink for a long time and then get very drunk, perhaps for days at a time.

By the early 1990s, however, when the idea of recommended weekly limits of alcohol drinking was gaining wider use, binge-drinking began to be specifically defined by researchers as "drinking over half the recommended units for one week in a single session" - a definition with no known rationale. Then, in 1995, the Government report Sensible Drinking pushed successfully for moving away from recommended weekly limits to recommended daily limits, and binge-drinking was redefined again, as drinking twice the recommended daily limit in a single session - again with little real rationale for this change in definition that cut the amount of alcohol in a "binge" by almost a quarter.

Since "twice the recommended daily limit" could be as low as three or three-and-a-half pints of beer for men and two-and-a-half medium-sized glasses of wine for women, this suddenly put an awful lot of ordinary people's ordinary nights out into the "binge" category.

The whole concept of recommended limits itself is a morass of guesswork and numbers made up on the spot. As an article in the Times in October last year revealed, when the Government's "safe drinking guidelines" of 21 units of alcohol a week for men and 14 for women were introduced in 1987, they were not based on any actual facts.

Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal and a member of the committee that put forward the recommended limits, told the Times that the experts declared it was impossible to say what was a safe limit and what wasn't. "And other people said, ‘Well, that's not much use'… So those limits were really plucked out of the air. They weren't really based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee."

"Binge-drinking", therefore, is an entirely arbitrary concept based on exceeding artificial consumption limits that were set with no scientific justification. In addition, what few newspaper stories will tell you is that, as a nation, we are now drinking less than we were.

The Office for National Statistics said in January that average alcohol consumption is down 15% from 2000, and men's average consumption is now 18.7 units per week, below the 21-units-a-week guideline, while women's consumption is nine units per week, well below their 14-units guideline. Only a small minority of the population, 18%, ever binge-drink under Government definitions, and 82% don't. That's better than in 2003, when 23% were officially binge-drinkers - a 22% drop in binge-drinking in three years.

Chris Hutt, a man who has been observing the pub and bar industry for the past four decades, formerly chief executive of the Wizard Inns pub chain and now non-executive chairman of the London-based gastropub company Geronimo Inns, agrees that "there's probably not a problem with binge-drinking in this country any different from what we've had in the past. That is not to say that there aren't hundreds of thousands of people with a personal problem and it's not to say that there isn't a problem in some town centres on some weekend nights, because clearly there is. But I can't think how the pub trade at large could possibly be blamed for any problem that exists. Certainly, binge-drinking is not a problem in the Geronimo estate, which are neighbourhood pubs with a very high percentage of food sales."

Hutt, like many in the pub trade, points to the supermarkets and their alcohol price promotions. He says: "When I started in the trade, which was nearly 35 years ago, a pint of beer in an off-licence cost the same as a pint of beer in the pub. You're probably now talking about a price ratio of four to one. That encourages consumption at home and discourages consumption in the pub - it can't do anything else. I'm not arguing against that trend. I'm not arguing for supermarkets to have their licences taken away. I do think that when an industry is selling drink at below the cost to them, that is a dubious use of their licence to sell a legal drug and should be questioned."

Commercial viability

Bish believes that "never mind the law-and-order issue on the streets, the commercial viability of pubs is threatened by supermarkets' pricing activity". Bish and the ALMR have been vigorous at highlighting allegedly below-cost promotions by the supermarkets, such as Tesco's recent bank holiday offer of 20 cans of Carlsberg for £7.49, equivalent to 77p a pint.

Bish believes that the pub and bar industry is "doing its share" in fighting excessive and damaging alcohol consumption - banning, for example, "all you can drink" promotions and introducing "at some considerable cost" extra security measures - but that its efforts are being undermined by people "pre-loading" - buying from the supermarkets, drinking at home, getting out on the town about 9.30-10.30pm to go to the bars. When the "pre-loaded" are refused entry, "there'd be a fight in the street, and because the fight was outside the pub with a drunken person, the kneejerk assumption was that the fight was caused by the pub."

Britain already has the laws to tackle drunken violence, Bish says, and "the Government needs to enforce a little more and legislate a little less". What the ALMR is doing, he says, is "promoting pubs as a place to have a nice time. That includes food, that includes families, and it includes beer. Yes, that's what we do, but in that order. Stats like ‘Mitchells & Butlers sell more food than they do beer' are very powerful arguments against the idea that pubs cause binge-drinking problems."

At Punch Taverns, the country's biggest pub owner, with 7,300 tenanted and 800 managed outlets, the company's corporate affairs director, Nigel Turpin, says criticism of pubs over binge-drinking is "totally unfair. The Government should be doing much, much more to protect the pub, which is the heart of the community, something very special. But for some reason, the Daily Mail and others seem to just be grabbing hold of this binge-drinking thing.

"The pub industry has made great inroads in encouraging responsible drinking. We spend millions improving the fabric of the pub, improving the training, improving the standards, the quality of the drinks, the quality of the food. A pub is no longer just about alcohol it's about going in and eating good food, meeting your mates, meeting work colleagues, friends and family, in a properly controlled environment where the licensee has gone on training courses, knows it's against the law to serve drunks or under-18s, and can supervise what goes on. It's the home of social drinking."

Binge-drinking, Turpin says, "is very low on the list of problems facing most pubs. It's only in certain areas that you get problems, and only in a minimal number of pubs."

One man who does face the problem is Mark Jones, formerly chief executive of the bar company Yates, now in charge of Premium Bars and Restaurants, which used to be Ultimate Leisure, the Newcastle upon Tyne-based bars chain. The North-east of England's drinking culture was in the headlines at the beginning of May, when it was revealed that arrests of young women for being drunk and disorderly in Northumbria have risen more than 50% in the past five years. The area's chief constable, Mike Craik, called for "rigorous action" on the price of alcohol, a ban on advertising, an end to discounted drinks and supermarkets selling alcohol at below cost prices, and a ban on the sale of alcopops.

Jones agrees that the rise in arrests is "a worrying trend". But, again, he lays the problem at the doorsteps of the supermarkets. "We've certainly found over the past five years we're having to deal with cases of young women drunk before they even turn up at the pub on a much more regular basis. We have very strong views on supermarkets selling alcohol at below cost price. We think there should be legislation to stop that."

Free soft drinks

At Premier Bars, Jones says, the company has taken a number of steps to reduce the problems. "Recently we've halved the price of draught soft drinks on Friday and Saturday nights, so it's now cheaper to drink a soft drink than it is to drink alcohol. Secondly, we give free draught soft drinks to designated drivers. If there's someone in the group who's driving people home, they can drink free soft drinks in our group.

"We've hired more female door staff - we find that controls female customers better. We've got more of an emphasis on food: 25% of our sales now are food three years ago it was just on 1%. There's no easy solution to the issues that have been raised by the police. There are lots of tactical things that can be done - such as minimum-pricing schemes, banning price incentives to drink more - but trying to do them on your own in a fiercely competitive environment is commercial suicide. We need to engage with the police and national and local government to try to fix these issues. However, I see the Government using sticks at the moment to deal with this, rather than carrots."

The supermarkets, naturally, insist it is "simplistic" to place the blame solely on their pricing policies, and point out that if they all agreed to raise prices, they would be accused by the Office of Fair Trading of price fixing and leave themselves open to large fines. Stores such as Tesco also say that their data shows that when people buy supermarket drink on promotion, their overall spend on drink goes down: cheaper booze does not mean more drinking.

All the same, Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Tesco's director for corporate affairs, says: "We accept that we have a role to play in addressing the problem of antisocial drinking. The only safe solution is for the Government to bring forward legislative proposals which Tesco and others in our industry can support. If ministers act, we pledge our support in helping to develop proposals and make the legislation work."

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