Don't force our beer drinkers out of the pubs!

By KomodoMK · Sep 19, 2008 ·
  1. KomodoMK

    John Harris is right to be concerned about people who drink too much. But he is wrong to give the impression that excess by a minority typifies the drinking habits of the majority (Brown must call time on the booze trade's lack of restraint, September 2).

    It is a gross exaggeration to talk of "our descent into soused dysfunction". In fact, by some authoritative measures, alcohol consumption in this country is falling. Research published by the Office of National Statistics in January 2008 showed that average consumption was down 15% from 2000.

    Men's average consumption is now 18.7 units per week - below the 21-unit recommended guideline. Women's average consumption is now nine units per week - well below the 14-unit recommended guideline.

    Harris should beware too of accepting the caricature of the British as Europe's heaviest drinkers. We are in fact in mid-table, 13th out of 27, according to a recent study.

    None of this is to say that a problem does not exist, only to call for a sense of perspective and for caution in demanding what Harris calls "the solid thwack of state intervention". Our customers are already feeling the solid thwack of swingeing tax rises, with more to come. The chancellor increased alcohol duty by 6% in the last budget and announced his intention of increasing it by 2% above inflation for the next four years. If higher beer taxes were the answer then we wouldn't have a problem, because we already have some of the highest beer duty in Europe.

    It is far too easy to pick out some dubious statistics and draw sweeping conclusions from them. For example, Harris quotes a study that claims to show a 70% increase in "drink-related hospital admissions".

    But this is based on a method of calculation that broadens the definition of "drink-related" so widely as to be virtually meaningless.

    All the evidence is that the more the government taxes beer, the more it drives trade away from traditional pubs - which have always been the setting for sensible, social drinking - and into the supermarkets.

    So instead of learning to drink responsibly among their elders, young people are encouraged by tax rises to buy in the supermarket and drink in the streets and parks.

    Our polling confirms that the more tax goes up, the more this trend is reinforced. Meanwhile, overall sales of beer fall and pub closures rise. Sales in the on-trade have fallen 8% in a year. Beer sales in pubs are at their lowest since the 1930s.

    Articles like this encourage government to respond in the way it knows best, by using demands for something to be done to justify ever-increasing taxes. The thwack that John Harris calls for will be felt painfully not just by the minority who drink to excess, but by the overwhelming majority of people who drink sensibly. All this approach will achieve is more pubs closing, depriving responsible customers of a great tradition that needs protecting from ill-conceived government intervention.

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