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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

06, September , 2011



Off licences: our common enemy?

Grocock and Shenker. It doesn’t sound nice, but it’s true. The respective chief executives of the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) and Alcohol Concern have chummed up.

SIBA became a corporate member of Alcohol Concern earlier this year and has “sought to build a relationship with Alcohol Concern”.

“Our dialogue with Alcohol Concern has revealed common ground,” declares Julian Grocock. “In particular the role played by the pub in promoting responsible drinking – which we should be using as a foundation for a joint strategy.”

For his part Don Shenker, not being a brewer and therefore not qualified to join SIBA, has written an opinion piece for the SIBA magazine. Headlined “It’s concern, not killjoy”, it says that pubs “should be encouraged and rewarded financially for improving community life”.

There is, indeed, common ground between the two organisations, chiefly on the matter of pubs – controlled drinking environments that are the sole outlet for the cask beer SIBA members happen to specialise in. Shenker reiterates his demand for a 50p minimum unit price which says will “help the pub trade enromously”.

That’s exceedingly unlikely, but it’s interesting that Alcohol Concern is increasingly going for the off-trade and, to an extent, seeing the on-trade as an ally in that, probably based on the old Chinese proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

And there was a welcome from most sections of the pub industry for a new Alcohol Concern study out this week that links the density of off-licences to alcohol problems among the young.

Conveniently, this report brilliantly highlights the problem I have with SIBA and pubs cosying up too closely with Shenker’s organisation. It really is a flimsy piece of research. Even Ben Goldacre, who writes the Bad Science column in the Guardian and has little sympathy with the drinks industry, Twittered his exasperation.

What the report does is simply correlate the concentration of off licences in an area with cases of alcohol poisoning. For most of England there is a positive correlation. That is, if you exclude London. The stats for London don’t fit Alcohol Concern’s case so it leaves them out. It says so itself:

“No statistical relationship between off-licence density and harms in young people was found in data from the London boroughs resulting in their exclusion from the findings. This anomaly is likely to be because young people in London consistently consume less alcohol than the average in England and with a lower frequency.”

Staggering. But even if Alcohol Concern could demonstrate a correlation without ignoring the most populated area of the country its conclusions are flawed. You can’t assume causation from correlation.

There are many factors involved in alcohol harm. There are many factors involved in determining off-licence density. Including demand, if you want to turn it round the other way. Another might be the absence of big supermarkets.

Alcohol Concern seems to know this basic principle of statistical research. “This study does not set out to establish cause and effect,” it says. Yet on the previous page you get: “The analysis showed that nearly 10% of all alcohol specific hospital admissions in England, excluding London, are directly attributable to off-licence density.”

Directly attributable? Does that not mean caused by? Or are we saying that just because something is attributable to something you don’t necessarily have to go ahead and attribute it?

To its slight credit Alcohol Concern does call for more research into the question (all research papers do that). But it also uses its ‘evidence’ to call for “a new health objective” to be added to the four existing objectives used to control licensing.

“Licensing authorities must be given the power to proactively refuse new applications/extensions on the basis of local health considerations.”

I’ve already expressed my objections to the fifth objective. And please note that it is not specific to the off-trade. Pubs will be caught up in it too.

But am I being soft on the nasty supermarkets? Am I cuddling up to irresponsible convenience stores? Well, on the question of density it has to be a mark of civilisation that you can pop out for an emergency bottle or two without getting too wet.

You have to remember, as well, that the division between pubs and off licences is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the 1950s or 1960s the pub was the local offie. You still see the words ‘Bottle & Jug’ etched on pub windows. There was, to quote the title of Alcohol Concern’s report, “One on every corner”. It was common for mum and dad to send the nipper round for a jug of ale or a bottle of stout.

Nowadays, of course, it’s the kids who ask the adults to get their booze. According to One on Every Corner 64% of 11 to 15-year-olds acquire drink from an adult relative, friend or passer-by.

In contrast, “the proportion of young people who regularly bought alcohol from an off-licence has declined since 1996, from 27% to 15% in 2008”.

Now, I was wondering whether the huge proliferation of off-licences was causing a problem of control, of retailers failing to put in place the systems and training required to prevent under-age selling. The key thing for me being not sheer numbers of off-licences but how professionally they are run.

But it looks like they’re getting much better at it. So well done the off-trade. There. I’ve said it.

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