The alcohol debate: Forget young binge drinkers… middle-aged and middle class are UK’s main ‘legal high’ abusers

By Mihaela Ivantcheva

MM discusses the UK’s most used, and abused, ‘legal high’ in running with the Government’s minimum pricing and alcohol-related hospital admissions in Manchester the highest in England.

“The first thing to say about alcohol is this: Alcohol is a very strong drug. Alcohol has only one use – it’s a recreational drug,” says the educational Big Blue Book of Booze published by Manchester drug and alcohol charity Lifeline.

“Every year in the United Kingdom somewhere around 9,000 to 40,000 people die as a result of drinking alcohol (depending on how the figures are estimated), while about 2,000 die as a result of all illegal drugs put together,” it says.

Part of the drugs debate has always been linked to our ‘legal high’ – alcohol. For many, alcohol is more harmful than some class B drugs, namely cannabis, with huge numbers in rehabs for alcohol abuse. On the other hand, opponents of drugs legalisation and decriminalisation argue that alcohol is an example of a failed policy of legalisation.

Alcohol is an easily available legal drug. However, that has not addressed our alcohol problem. On the contrary, it seems to have reinforced it. We drink more than we used to and we drink irresponsibly and irrationally.

NHS grumbles about the costs associated with alcohol abuse reaching £2.7 billion yearly. Alcohol-related hospital admissions are on the rise with Manchester at the top of the league with one of the highest rates in England.

The Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) warns that more people are dying from liver disease than ever before. According to the British Crime Survey, alcohol was a factor in half of the violent offences in 2009-2010.

Legalisation debate

So what went wrong with regulating and controlling this drug?

Michael Linnell, drug and alcohol expert at Lifeline, says that looking at alcohol as a failed legalised drug is oversimplification.

“Alcohol is not legalised. There are a lot of rules about drunkenness and manufacture. What we have is a regulated market. Regulated market does not get rid of all the problems. It solves some of them.

“We don’t have gangs like in America selling cheap low-quality alcohol. If you did the same with drugs you would experience the same problems.

“If there was on open sale of cannabis, you’d bring in taxation, you’d cut gangsters out of it and you’d have some kind of regulated market. That would not stop people getting problems with it,” he says.

Quantity matters: three for two

A plethora of influences has contributed to the nation’s drink problem – availability, affordability, rising disposable incomes, changing drinking patterns. The IAS says that alcohol is 44 percent more affordable than it was in 1980. However, one of the main ‘contributors’ seems to be the retail and alcohol industries in tandem with the advertising industry.

“Drinking patterns have changed beyond recognition and the one thing that politicians are quite reluctant to admit is that the biggest change has been in the sales and supermarkets,” says Mr Linnell.

Supermarkets are filled with boxes of beer sold at discounted prices and customers, tempted to buy more, end up drinking more as well.

Two for one, three for two, buy one get one free – these are some of the marketing techniques designed to lure customers into spending more on alcohol. Many supermarkets, such as Lidl, advertise ‘amazing’ offers to buy ten for the price of eight.

“Everywhere we go, alcohol is being pushed to us. It is not really a surprise that we are drinking more,” says Mr Linnell.

The government is taking steps to address this side of the problem as part of its newly introduced National Alcohol Strategy. It is consulting on banning multi-buy alcohol discounting including two for the price of one, three for two and buy one get one.

However, it seems likely that there would be room for manoeuvre and the industry will find its way around the bans. Notably, the government will not ban half price on alcohol, a third off and discounts for big bottles.

In contrast to other countries such as Canada that have increased the price of alcohol through taxation, the Coalition Government is looking at an alternative approach with minimum pricing. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) even a minimum price of 40p would deliver yearly an estimated £850 million extra revenue to retailers and producers.

“The alcohol industry are a bit too close to the government and have always been,” says Mr Linnell.

Minimum pricing

Despite critics, experts agree that minimum pricing will reduce the overall consumption of alcohol and in the long-term reduce to an extent alcohol-related violence and health problems.

“The rise in the minimum price is undisputed. That’s the most effective thing that you can do. It is absolutely certain that if you want to reduce the overall level of consumption of alcohol in your society then you raise the minimum price,” says Mr Linnell.

A research by the University of Sheffield shows that a minimum price of 45p per unit of alcohol would reduce consumption by 4.3 per cent.

In response to the Guardian, Eric Appleby, Chief Executive of Alcohol Concern, said: “The link between price and consumption is especially strong for young people. Current policies are failing and it is right to try minimum price.”

Hidden population of drinkers

The National Alcohol Strategy was introduced with the slogan ‘to crack down on our binge drinking culture’.

In light of recent decline in binge drinking especially among young people, the strategy seems to fall short of targeting the heart of the drinking problem.

While binge drinking and drinking among young people is unquestionably a problem, the number of underage drinkers has shrunk and consumption by 16 to 24-year-olds is receding faster than in the overall population.

“It is much easier for politicians to blame it on young people and call it binge rather than acknowledge the fact that it is affecting all of us. It is about scapegoating, finding the folk devil,” Mr Linnell says.

According to him, the major problem is a hidden middle-aged, middle class population, people that drink quietly at home.

Mr Appleby shares his view: “The problem is much bigger than young people bingeing, with middle-class drinking at home racking up the majority of the massive costs to the NHS.”

Ed Heaver, Director of Serve Legal, thinks that the new alcohol strategy lacks awareness of how today’s underage drinkers are getting their hands on booze. “Minimum price will make no difference to this problem – it’s social action we need,” he says.

Living in an alcohol society

A trend that is currently surfacing is proxy purchasing of alcohol through parents, friends and siblings.

Research shows that young people who are likely to have an alcohol problem are those whose parents are either heavy drinkers or don’t drink at all.

“Most young people get their alcohol from their parents. If you are serious about stopping this, you could do a lot by educating the parents.

“We have always treated alcohol like any other drug. Prevention is the best cure. It is about educating people to live in an alcohol society. It is about teaching moderate and sensible drinking which is the key thing,” says Mr Linnell.

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