Jayne Dowle: Has 24-hour drinking really left no hangover?

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GOVERNMENT after government has failed to get to grips with the issue of alcohol. Nothing yet suggests that the new one will find the way forward any less befuddled. The problems are myriad and complex.

What to do about the trouble caused by out-of-control drinking in our town centres every weekend? What to do about middle-aged, middle-class women apparently unable to function because of their addiction to wine? What to do about youngsters necking shots and passing out at parties? What to do about drink-driving limits? And it’s going to come up on the agenda soon – what to do about pensioners enjoying a daily tot of sherry, or wedding guests having more than a couple of glasses of Champagne?

The situation has become so blurred, we have lost the ability to distinguish between a social tipple and full-on anti-social alcohol abuse.

It is said that life always looks different from the bottom of a glass. And what we see in front of us is a mess. Everyone involved has an agenda and an axe to grind, from drinkers to doctors, from health workers to churches, from youth organisations to politicians. When you think though, that alcohol abuse is reported to cost the country upwards of £3bn annually in terms of policing, medical care and general local council responsibilities, you might hope that making sense of it all should become a priority that crosses political boundaries.

Now a new report from the Institute of Economic Affairs threatens to make the situation even more hazy – Drinking Fast and Slow: Ten Years of the Licensing Act suggests that longer drinking hours have not, contrary to popular opinion, resulted in social Armageddon.

The statistics produced indicate that violent crime, binge-drinking, drink-driving and overall alcohol consumption have actually dropped, and there has been no rise in alcohol-related admissions to A&E or alcohol-related deaths. In fact, according to these findings, alcohol consumption per capita fell by 17 per cent between 2005 and 2013, the biggest decline since the 1930s.

What are we to make of this? It runs entirely contrary to previous reports, public assumption, political conviction and the anecdotal experience of any police officer, paramedic or publican you might care to speak to. Only a few weeks ago, Labour leadership contender Andy Burnham was arguing that 24-hour drinking has brought us myriad social and health problems. He says he would reassess the issue if he is ever in charge of the country. His draconian stance was not only supported by other parties, but also by Northamptonshire chief constable Adrian Lee, who called for the introduction of “drunk tanks” to contain the worst offenders.

You don’t get a chief constable demanding drunk tanks for no reason. And you don’t get a figure of at least £3bn – the estimated cost of dealing with alcohol-related problems from the police, NHS and local councils – without strong justification.

However Christopher Snowdon, director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, has produced statistic after statistic which “debunks the myth” that round-the-clock drinking has been a failure. Let’s leave aside the possible political motivations here, and look at some of his findings in a wider social context.

He argues, for instance, that every measure of excessive drinking has dropped. Binge-drinking amongst 16 to 24-year-olds, for example, has fallen from 29 per cent to 18 per cent. What though, does that actually mean when we both examine it closely and extrapolate it into real life situations? Fewer youngsters might be drinking themselves insensible, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it at all. And it doesn’t mean that the ones doing it aren’t causing damage to themselves – and possibly others.

And a major factor here is geographical. Figures may well be falling nationally. However, we only have to visit some of our town centres on a Friday 
or Saturday night to see that alcohol abuse is evident. That these locations might also exhibit other social problems, such as limited employment opportunities, low educational achievement, lack of aspiration and all the other factors 
which contribute towards social blight is never entirely coincidental.

What we should never do is look at alcohol in isolation. Statistics can be used to tell us anything. What really matters is how what they tell us plays out in experience. This though, is more difficult to measure than a decent vodka.

It is this lack of clarity which causes the moral panic about alcohol. What is clear though is that as a society, we must find a way to recover from the morning after the 24-hour-drinking experiment. We can start by reminding ourselves of one key fact on this issue: social drinking is one thing, anti-social drinking is quite another.