Inside Track by Mark Stretton
The “binge drinking” debate has escalated to a level of unprecedented intensity. Propelled further into the spotlight by imminent changes to the UK’s drinking laws, it seems everyone has an opinion on binge drinking – the blight of Britain – from the Bishop of Manchester and physicians to magistrates, the police, politicians and of course those that are involved in alcohol retailing. Consequently, the operations of bar companies, particularly those in the late-night town centre environment, are the subject of intense media scrutiny. Scenes of drunken revellery beamed across TV screens and published in national newspapers have made uncomfortable viewing, exacerbating the idea that licensed retailers are profiting from public disorder and fuelling drink-induced violence. The popular press has also done little to dis-spell the furore around licensing reforms, promoting the myth the changes to the law will create 24-hour drinking and result in more alcohol-related crime. Few could have imagined that a link would be forecast between licensing reform and an increase rape and other violent crimes, but a letter to The Times from a local magistrates body last week did exactly that. It was picked up by all national press, news channels and radio stations – the debate last Wednesday on BBC Five Live – the popular sport and news station that attracts more than five million listeners – was: “will new drinking laws lead to more rape and violence?” It says a lot about the current image of the industry. These laws will not really change anything that much. Early indications suggest that very few operators have applied for the flexibility to open at any time through a 24-hour period. Instead, most have opted for an extra hour or two at weekends. It is in fact the national supermarket chains such as Tesco and J Sainsbury, which sell alcohol at around 40% of the price in pubs and clubs, that have made such moves, en masse. But this has failed to prevent calls from the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, chiefs of police and magistrates from calling for changes to be shelved. It seems an inauspicious start for what was at one point heralded as an exciting new era. Such is the sensitivity surrounding the industry, binge drinking and licensing that bar operators may need to consider taking some unpalatable action to weather the storm. The British Beer and Pub Association has attempted to get on the offensive, reviewing its code of conduct to ban any promotions that incentivise customers to consume more alcohol, such as happy hours or other price promotions. But in the current climate the abolition of any pricing policies that encourage consumption is so obvious it’s almost not worth saying. Other moves the industry should consider include paying for police, reviewing product ranges especially drinks that are designed to give quick access to drunkenness such as shots and slammers, and the formation of a social responsibility forum. Some of these measures (such as police or a forum) will mean more cost. But the argument that the industry should not have to fund further initiatives because it already contributes billions to the national coffers through taxes – however valid – is not going to cut it. One prominent company executive recently likened the current media scrum to other issues that have provoked similar hysteria; 15 years ago Rottweiler dogs were a menace to society and a danger to our children; 20 years ago eggs threatened to give the nation food-poisoning. The booze industry, it would seem, is the current public enemy number one. More PR is needed both at company and industry level to extol the virtues of this business. In my view the industry has improvements to make. What it must recognise is that the UK does have a drink problem. This is a social issue but pubs and bars – perceived as the beneficiary of Britain's drink habit – are in the firing line. Most people are responsible, most people do not smash up town centres, but some do. It sounds obvious to say but the industry must distance itself from such anti-social behaviour - at the moment, it is failing to do so. It is still not good enough at refusing to serve customers who have had too much to drink. This is about training staff. While the situation exists where people who should be offered nothing stronger than a coffee, can buy another drink, the industry is entirely accountable. Changes to Britain’s licensing laws are long over due and the premise of liberalising drinking times, eminently sensible. But these current laws do not really do that. Most outlets will barely extend hours, which means customers will still be drinking between set times. Therefore suggestions that this legislation will go someway to dismantling the UK’s on-the-clock drinking culture are fanciful. Proper deregulation of drinking hours would have gone some way to doing that. But even then changing social habits takes time – years if not generations. There will be no magic wand. This situation will not change overnight. It is serious, and offensive action is needed.