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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
March 4, 2010



The Fifth Element: public houses and public health

Jeff Ellis, who runs the Bear Tavern in Fife, will on March 22 confront supermarket giants Tesco and Morrisons and ask the councilís licensing board to review their alcohol licences. This will be the first test of a regulation peculiar to Scottish law: the fifth licensing objective, the promotion of public health.

He has in mind, of course, the absurdly cheap supermarket alcohol that undercuts pubs and, New Temperance argues, fuels alcohol-related health problems.

Itís an interesting one. Should he win, the implications, for off and on trades alike, are disturbing. It will mean alcohol retailers really do have a legal responsibility to promote public health.

And it may not be confined to Scotland for long. New guidelines from NICE, the NHS body, currently in consultation, are likely to recommend that the fifth objective is extended to England and Wales.

How will that work? Public health, as a notion, is a political swamp. Since the mid-1970s it has increasingly meant its opposite. Rather than creating the social and economic conditions for better health it puts the onus on individuals to lead healthier lives. Public health is reduced to a PR campaign that seeks to influence peopleís behaviour, including getting them to drink less. And because that doesnít seem to work, stronger measures are taken. Like making alcohol less available and more expensive.

Are pubs to be enlisted in this campaign? Do people go to the pub for a pie and a pint because itís healthy? Itís clearly a nonsense.

Of course, you could argue that humans are complex social beings and not simple organisms that react in any straightforward way to the addition of a chemical such as alcohol.

You could argue that pubs make a valuable contribution to the health of whole communities by encouraging social well-being and bringing people together with the help of a little alcoholic lubricant.

And youíd be right on both counts. But I bet youíd lose.

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