Sunday, 28 February 2010

Alcohol is *not* a public health concern

Public health is a serious issue, and one that merits government intervention. The smogs that led to the Clean Air Act were debilitating to many Londoners. A universal habit was causing serious harm to the health of many, and it was right for the government of the day to pass legislation to force the many to chnage this habit and preserve the health of the populace.

Alcohol does not fall into this category. If I get blind drunk in my living room, my neighbour does not become ill. My drinking affects only my health. Therefore, there are no public health implications at all. It is therefore very frustrating to see Obnoxio's report on Andrew Lansley's new green paper on public health - "A Healthier Nation". This is full of "innovative strategies", "national campaigns harnessing the latest behaviour change research", which are of course "delivered by providers" who will work towards "successful new public health strategies".

Obo expresses exactly my thoughts, albeit somewhat more forcefully than I would, when he says "No. No. No. Just f***ing NO!".

The fundamental error is in seeing alcohol as a public health issue, which it is not. It is a public order issue. If my neighbour drinks himself to an early grave, then that is his choice. I have no more right to tell him that he should not do that than he has to tell me not to go on track days because motorsport is dangerous.

Of course, if he and his mates get themselves blind drunk in public and make me or my family feel threatened, then we have a problem. We don't have a public health problem, though, we have a public order problem. It is not a problem that is solved by raising the price of a pint (for all of us) and putting on adverts nagging us (all) not to drink. It is a problem that is solved by arresting those who are drunk and disorderly. It is solved by dragging them before the magistrates. It is solved by the magistrates having the power to sentence them appropriately. It is solved by the magistrates regaining the power to issue (and revoke) liquor licences. It is solved by giving residents the power to apply to magistrates to revoke or alter a liquor licence. It is solved by making clear to a local sheriff and to local magistrates that the tone and nature of their town is their responsibility and that they will be held to account.

Instead, liquor licences are now a local authority planning issue, and I have no idea how I might challenge one, or whether I can.

That local authority then grants or renews the licence with no first-hand knowledge as to whether this is a good or a bad idea.

Magistrates are bound by a centralised set of sentencing guidelines that, in practice, prevent them from making a real difference.

Police know that there is no point arresting someone for drunken behaviour; they will then have to fill out the paperwork, be off the streets for the rest of the night, then either release them or fill out even more paperwork in order to put them before a magistrate who will not be able to do anything about it.

Ask yourself which is likely to have the greatest effect on drunken behaviour;
  • increasing the price of a pint by 50p, putting up lots of posters, and showing lots of adverts, or
  • making sure that (a) customers know that if they get drunk and kick off, they will be arrested and put before a magistrate within the hour who will be able to see video evidence of their disorderliness for himself while they are still drunk, and will be able to sentence them in a way that will hurt, and (b) that the publicans know that their next licence renewal will be before a magistrate who has had to give up many of his or her Friday and Saturday nights to deal with his customers, who has seen the state in which they left his establishment, and who will have some awkward questions to ask.

And the best thing about this? No new laws are needed. Just repeals of New Labour laws, and better management.


  1. "And the best thing about this? No new laws are needed."

    Amen! It's about time we started to use the ones we already have, rather than constantly reinvent the wheel...

  2. Oh, hang on. My mistake. We would in fact need to pass the "Drunk & Disorderly Enforcement Act 2010", which would set a target for local police authorities for the number of D&D prosecutions in each fiscal year, establish the UK Office of Responsible Drunk & Disorderly Prosecution Oversight Committee and grant sweeping powers of arrest to the Disorderliness Czar, with (of course) a budget of £934 million.