Inside Track by Peter Martin
If you want a quiet life, you shouldn’t be in the business of selling alcohol. The pub and bar trade may think it has been put under excessive pressure of late. It should get used to it; there is little sign of it getting any easier. Last week just underlined that fact. First came the report that alcohol was helping to fuel a sexual health crisis among teenagers, with calls for tougher measures to control drinking among the young. This was followed by the focus falling on drink-driving, with news that the government is considering lowering the limit from 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood to 50mg. Later this year it will publish a consultation paper to gauge opinion. There are those that believe that alcohol will become the new tobacco. It is more complicated than that. The public’s, especially the middle class’s, schizophrenic relationship with the nation’s favourite drug of choice means outright bans are unlikely. Selective crackdowns, however, look inevitable – and two areas where the government can count on public approval for tougher measures are under-age drinking and drink-driving. A report from the government’s Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health says that high rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are related to a culture of drinking and drug-taking among the young and it urges the government to change the law so that retailers would have to seek proof of age from anyone who looks younger than 21. The pub and bar industry may not like more change in this area, but it is now well-placed to cope with and even profit from a more stringent regime. In the past year or so, it has shown commendable responsibility in adopting new attitudes and practices in this area. It will soon need to do the same over drink-driving, with the challenge moving from urban to rural and suburban businesses. A 50mg blood alcohol limit would mean drivers able to consume only one 175ml glass of standard-strength wine or half a pint of strong beer and remain legally fit to drive. The Department for Transport has rejected calls for an immediate change, instead it wants police to focus more on enforcing the existing limit – including putting more traffic police on the roads. However, the government has been embarrassed by a number of studies that show Britain lagging behind the rest of Europe in tackling drink-driving. All other main European countries have lowered their limits either to 50mg or 20mg. Meanwhile, the number killed in drink-drive crashes in Britain has risen by more than a fifth in the past seven years to 560 in 2005. Over the same period, Germany and the Netherlands have reduced drink-drive deaths by more than 50 per cent. Research by University College London shows that lowering the limit to 50mg would prevent an estimated 65 deaths and 230 injuries a year in Britain. It would also save the economy £119 million a year by reducing medical costs and lost working time. Stephen Ladyman, the Road Safety Minister, said the government was in favour of moving to a 50mg limit but first wanted to see evidence that it would be properly enforced by police. A European Commission study in 2005 found that drivers were less likely to be breath-tested in Britain than in other European countries. Only 9% of drivers in Britain had been tested in the previous three years, compared with 64% in Finland, 63% in the Netherlands and 33% in France. The EU average was 26%. What’s to be done? Fighting the change would bring the industry into conflict not just with politicians, but public opinion. A survey in The Times showed 77% of the public – roughly the same percentage that backs the coming smoking ban – in favour of a lower limit, with a majority also backing random breath tests. Selling alcohol is becoming an increasingly difficult business. There will be those that will want to stand and fight, while others will get on with finding new ways to work with, and gain an advantage from, the new circumstances. Licensed retailing is not a place for the timid or the unimaginative. Peter Martin is the co-creator of M&C Report and the founder of the Peach Factory