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The Monitor's View

A message in proposed ban on British alcohol ads

Alcohol consumption has increased alarmingly in the UK, and around the world.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / September 23, 2009



Is it last call for alcohol promotion in Britain? With consumption surging, doctors there propose a total ban on alcohol ads, including event sponsorship.

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The British Medical Association (BMA) would cut the cut-price deals, such as happy hour and ladies' free-entry nights at pubs. Prices for booze have fallen so low that the MDs want a pricing floor, and tax rates tied to alcohol content.

Radical measures? Yes, and ones with messages for other countries.

Since the 1960s, Britain has gradually deregulated alcohol so that it's almost sold like milk and eggs. Four supermarket chains control 75 percent of the alcohol market and are locked in a high-volume, low-price war. Pubs are now open 24 hours.

Here's the consequence of easily available and ever-more affordable beer, wine, and spirits: British household spending on alcohol increased by 81 percent in the past 15 years or so. Alcohol-related hospital admissions in England alone – as well as deaths – have roughly doubled since the 1990s. British youth intoxication rates far exceed those in the US.

America strongly regulates alcohol, and overall youth drinking is flat or slightly declining (although female underage drinking is increasing). But pressure is on to relax the legal drinking age, push prices lower, and make alcohol more available.

Message No. 1 from Britain: Deregulation of addictive, harmful substances – with the idea that they then lose their "forbidden fruit" luster – prompts more use and problems. Politicians tempted by the push to legalize the production and sale of marijuana should take note.

Message No. 2: No single policy can counter problem drinking. The BMA's approach is broad, reflecting studies that show that restrictions on price, ads, and availability do work. The medical journal The Lancet ran articles in June on alcohol and global health that back these findings.

Global alcohol consumption is increasing, and the World Health Organization cites alcohol as the third leading "risk factor" in premature death and disability in developed countries. A push now is on for a global convention on alcohol, modeled on the one for tobacco.

Therein lies Message No. 3: Alcohol abuse is a global challenge, but as is the case with the antismoking campaign, progress is possible. The BMA is pushing in the right direction.

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