Public Drinking Then and Now

By Graham, Kathryn | Contemporary Drug Problems, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview
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Public Drinking Then and Now


Graham, Kathryn, Contemporary Drug Problems


In this commentary I identify and discuss aspects of public drinking that appear to be similar for current public drinking, early modern Germany (Kiimin) and 18th-century Paris (Brennan). Establishing common features of public drinking over time and place may help to provide a better understanding of the relationship between public drinking and societal harms and benefits.

The commerce of public drinking

Although much of the study of public drinking focuses on the drinking environment rather than on the commercial aspects, the existence of bars, clubs, pubs and taverns has to do with the potential to make money from the sale of alcohol. This commercial aspect differentiates drinking in public houses from drinking at parties or with friends or family in at least two important ways. First, as noted by Babor et al. (2003), alcohol is "No Ordinary Commodity"-it is an intoxicant and an addictive substance. Accordingly, the sale of alcohol for on-premise consumption involves dealing with intoxicated behavior. second, sale of alcohol has the potential to promote and reinforce addiction and overconsumption. In unregulated markets and with sufficient affluence, the sale of alcohol may lead to the proliferation and expansion of public drinking to an extent that has a negative impact on the overall community. Thus, as noted by Kiimin, even in the early modern period issues arose relating to the commerce of public drinking, such as outlet density, location, and hours of sale-issues that continue to be of concern for public policy and prevention in current times (see Babor et al., 2003).

Public houses, social problems and regulations

Both Brennan and Kiimin describe a number of problems related to drinking in public houses, most notably violence and public disorder, but also negative economic consequences for families of drinkers and negative health consequences for the drinker. Research suggests that the link between drinking in public drinking establishments and problems continues to the present day (Lang et al., 1995; Single & Wortley, 1993). As an example of social problems associated with public drinking, Brennan describes how the public nature of cafés and taverns allowed criminal and undesirable elements to gather and pursue "disorders." This parallels the attraction of the criminal element to public drinking establishments noted in the past decade. For example, Morris (1998) described a UK city that was the target of "a well-organised criminal operation in which a registered security firm took control of a large section of the door supervisor market in the city through intimidation and bribery" in order to "facilitate and dominate drug dealing" (p. v). In another city described in this report, criminal groups did not take over the door security per se, but used intimidation and violence to ensure that those staffing the doors did not interfere with the drug trade. Although most drinking establishments both currently and in the period described by Brennan are not centers for crime and violence, the existence of this association seems to be a recurring theme for public houses over time.

Both Brennan and Kiimin describe a broader social context for public drinking that includes the critical factor of defining public houses as appropriate targets for policing and regulation. Interestingly, as described by Brennan, it was the association of public drinking and crime that attracted the attention of the police and led them to assert jurisdiction over public drinking establishments as public places. Brennan also goes on to describe how legal differentiation between public and private domains became defined in terms of policing and regulation. Similarly, Kumin describes the regulation of who could and who could not operate a public house in the form of early versions of "licensing"-that is, the rotation system for operating public houses in Canstein and the election of publicans in the Bernese Oberland.

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