In Britain, ever-cheaper alcohol is prompting legal action

Police chiefs and lawmakers are concerned that ultralow pricing is fueling a rise in drink-related crime and rowdy behavior.

When Britain liberalized the sale of alcohol in 2005, there were murmurs that the British fondness for imbibing would be indulged at all hours with dire consequences for societal order and common decency.

Two years after permitting licensed premises to sell alcohol 24/7, pressure is indeed mounting on the British government to tackle an alcohol problem – but not because of round-the-clock drinking. Instead, an increasingly vocal assemblage of lawmakers and police chiefs concerned about drinking-related problems such as petty crime, antisocial behavior, assault, and worse point to a different factor: Alcohol is too cheap.

Almost 200 lawmakers are calling for an end to irresponsible drink promotions and in particular want supermarkets to desist from selling alcohol below cost. Some stores, for instance, have been pricing lager cheaper than water.

Several police chiefs meanwhile have been calling for action to stop the supply of cut-price liquor, which they say is directly responsible for crime and rowdy behavior.

According to Peter Fahy, chief constable of Cheshire in northwest England, alcohol is "too cheap, too readily available, and too strong. Young people cannot handle it."

His counterpart in Devon and Cornwall, southwest England, Stephen Otter, said groups of youngsters drinking in parks were making people feel "unsafe or uncomfortable" and said binge drinking was fueling crime.

Alcohol is now 65 percent more affordable than it was in 1980, according to Alcohol Concern, a charity. Prices have failed to keep pace with general inflation, and the Labour government has been reluctant to hike taxes, particularly on spirits.

'Irresponsible drink promotions'

Retailers meanwhile have engaged in a series of promotions. During last year's soccer World Cup, for example, supermarkets sold £112.7 million ($226 million) of beer, wines, and spirits below cost, according to the Competition Commission, an independent public group that monitors regulated industries. John Grogan, a lawmaker behind the parliamentary motion calling for an end to "irresponsible drinks promotions," says that nearly half of all beer sold in Britain comes from supermarkets. A generation ago, it was barely 10 percent. "When you are giving [beer] away at less than the price of water, it does have an impact."

Around one-third of 11- to 15-year-olds today say they drink at least once a week, and overall consumption rates have doubled to about 11.4 units per week . When it comes to binge drinking (sometimes defined as having five or more drinks in one sitting), Britain is third only to Ireland and Finland in Europe.

But in a change from previous habits, when drinkers would spend their time and money in pubs, many young people will now often get cheap liquor from stores and then finish an evening's carousing at a nightspot.

Nick Bish, executive director of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, a network of pub, bar, and restaurant operators, says this often reflects badly on the pubs and bars that have responded to concern about cheap alcohol by refraining from "happy hours" and discounting booze.

"Young people will tend to get their drink and start their evening at home or in some public place and then turn up at pubs and bars later in the evening," he says.

"Our concern is that if there is disorder ... the first place the police look is the nearest pub, because the assumption is that this is where it has all happened. That's unfair because of all the efforts we've made."

Rise in alcohol-related crime

Links between alcohol misuse and antisocial behavior and crime are meanwhile multiplying. Statistics show that 1 in 6 British schoolchildren who had committed a crime did so under the influence of alcohol. In June, a survey by the Trading Standards Institute found that a third of teenagers binge drink. Over half of all regular binge drinkers said they had been violent when drinking.

"We do think deep discounting plays a role in this," says Frank Soodeen, a spokesman for Alcohol Concern. "Alcohol is much more affordable, and Home Office test purchase schemes show too many of licenses are prepared to sell alcohol to children, some as young as 11. It's vital the government start cracking down on this."

Possible government-led solutions

It is less clear what the government can do. Officials say a wide-ranging review of alcohol policies has been launched. A spokesman acknowledged that a key concern was "the link between price promotion and the harm or behavior that may follow from that."

Taxation is one option – duties on spirits have not been raised here for 10 years, and other high-content products could be taxed at more punitive rates than low-alcohol drinks, for example. But British alcohol taxes are already higher than in some European countries such as Italy and Greece, which do not have such alcohol problems.

Willm Mistral, an expert in substance misuse and young people at the University of Bath in southwest England, says it's difficult for the government to interfere "because we live in a free-market economy." Even lawmaker John Grogan says he doesn't want to end up with a system where "politicians name the price of beer."

But both say it's time for more social responsibility on the part of retailers. "There has to be a social repsonsiblity shown by industry, not just publicans but by the people who manufacture and market alcohol on a very large scale," says Dr. Mistral.

Mr. Grogan says that the government could prevail on retailers to stop selling alcohol below cost to entice customers who will then also buy other products from the store.

"Over recent years retailers have had a pretty easy ride and have said that marketing alcohol is just like marketing baked beans. That's probably changing now, because of the changing public mood, and in the next year they'll have to do something."

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