Under the Influence: Alcohol Advertising Needs Severe Regulation

By Wilby, Peter | New Statesman (1996), March 10, 2008 | Go to article overview

Under the Influence: Alcohol Advertising Needs Severe Regulation


Wilby, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


The advice of the 17th-century poet George Herbert was to "drink not the third glass which thou canst not tame". Those who now ignore this injunction include not only heavily tattooed young men but also the suburban middle classes guzzling wine with their evening meals.

Ministers are minded to act. Expect rises in alcohol duties in the Budget and relaxation of competition laws to allow supermarkets to conspire more efficiently against the public by raising the prices of products associated with youthful binge drinking. The government has already promised tougher action against selling alcohol to the under-18s and increased fines for drinking antisocially on the pavement.

But should ministers reverse the switch, now three years old, to 24-hour drinking? Has the relaxation of the licensing laws led, as some papers would have you believe, to our city centres becoming vomit-strewn battlefields where no respectable citizen will tread? An official review suggests not. According to Home Office research (The Impact of the Licensing Act 2003 on Levels of Crime and Disorder by Mike Hough et al), violent crime is if anything slightly down, along with national alcohol consumption per person. Even public perceptions of whether it's safe to go out at night haven't changed much. In any case, references to "24-hour drinking" are misleading. Fewer than 500 pubs and clubs have been granted 24-hour licences and they are mostly used for special occasions; the average closing time for on-licensed premises has extended by only 21 minutes. The government did not enforce longer opening hours; it merely allowed local discretion to replace regulations dictated centrally.

The big question is whether governments should even try to influence our drinking habits. I am old enough to remember when we drinkers would hammer on pub doors in the late afternoon to remind them it was time to reopen and would bicker with restaurateurs over whether we were eating sufficient food to justify a glass of wine. The sale and consumption of alcohol were then restricted by time, place and circumstances. Mild inebriation was tolerated--even for car drivers--but outright drunkenness frowned upon. A man was praised because "he can hold his drink". Women who drank more than an occasional port and lemon were thought unfeminine.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

No doubt those social norms were strengthened by government regulation.

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