Raising the cost of drinking won’t change culture

Pic: Sophie Robinson-Tillett

Sophie Robinson-Tillett suggests that introducing a minimum price for alcohol will not change the ingrained attitudes of UK binge drinkers.

The Government’s ten week consultation on the price of alcohol is now halfway through, and decisions will be made on February 8th. The proposed introduction of a minimum cost per unit for alcohol retailers is Theresa May’s answer to our national drink problem.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield have advised the Government that a figure of 45p per unit will bring alcohol consumption down by 4.3%, resulting in 2,000 saved lives and 66,000 fewer casualties in the next decade.

I’ve grown up in Hackney, which has in recent years become home to late night revelry on a grand scale. I appreciate, as I step over the teenagers in trilbies vomiting into the gutter at 3am down Kingsland High Street, that England needs to get a grip. It does. We do. Not even Instagram can make that look cool.

I also agree that street drinking is a problem. You only have to wander through Gillett Square to see that there is a community (and yes, they are a community – with lovers and friends and rituals) who spend their days living hand-to-mouth, sometimes shoplifting and often causing alarm to others in the area. I don’t see them as quite the societal menace that some suburban-migrants who’ve bought prime real estate in E8 do, but I do recognise that they are vulnerable people who can display anti-social behaviour, and this needs, somehow, to be addressed.

But making alcohol more expensive won’t make the problem go away. If people start a night, or indeed a day, with the desire to get very drunk then that’s just what they’re going to do, regardless of the price tag.

In Stamford Hill there are a group of Eastern European men that drink alcoholic disinfectant on the corner of the Broadway. I’m talking about the kind that you get in white plastic boxes on the walls of hospital corridors. They tell me that its nickname is ‘Polish Evian’. That’s what happens when you try and price an addict out of the market. Hardly a tee-total utopia.

And then there’s the other end of the spectrum: walk up the road from Dalston to Shoreditch and you can see that binge drinking is not a money matter. The city-slickers that tumble out of cocktail bars on Old Street, effing and jeffing at bouncers and dribbling Patron are, to my mind, more offensive to one’s sense of decency than any homeless street drinker nursing a can of White Lightning. Yet they won’t be affected by the legislation because the proposals will only impact cheap alcohol.

No – the problem of binge drinking stems from national culture, not class. That’s what needs to be addressed.

The new proposals would introduce a minimum cost of £4.22 for a bottle of wine in the UK; but you can easily buy a decent bottle of wine for five euros on the Continent. The difference is that in Spain there isn’t quite the same instinct to stick a straw in it. Britain has a problem with its relationship to alcohol, not to the ease with which we can buy it.

The main problem with trying to combat problem boozing with legislation is that it gives authority to people who don’t have any true understanding of the culture they’re trying to fix. Their knowledge goes little further than a set of figures on their desk, so they deal with it by issuing some more figures.

You wouldn’t ask a Mormon to deal with the rise of sexually transmitted diseases in Britain, so why do we expect Government ministers and academics – who I can almost guarantee haven’t ordered a shot at any point during the development of these proposals – to clean up the country’s drinking scene? At least not without a bit more help from those on both sides of the bar, the people who observe the cultural element that’s threaded through the empirical evidence.

The key to getting on top of Britain’s excessive drinking culture is to get a sense of what’s really behind it, and that is what’s missing from this consultation process. Who knows, Theresa – swap your small glass of Chilean Malbec for a couple of Jagerbombs and you might finally start seeing sense.

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