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        The politics of drinking

March 15, 2011



The anti-alcohol lobby and the responsibility deal

So, a significant contingent of anti-alcohol lobbyists have walked away from the table and refused to sign the government’s responsibility deal. Should we be surprised?

It does seem an over-reaction. The six organisations concerned are right that the measures are weak, but what did they expect? And is it the right tactic to refuse to agree to something because it doesn’t go far enough, when there is really nothing in it you could disagree with?

Of course, this is all a political manouvre, designed to force the debate. It also reflects a view among substantial sections of the lobby that the drinks industry has no part to play in alcohol policy, indeed that it is an immovable block.

The full statement of the group is worth a read. At the bottom the six each make an additional comment that reveal some interesting shades of opinion.

While the statement itself welcomes a debate with the industry, certain signatories make it clear that’s not what they want at all.

Alison Rogers, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, appears directly to blame “rising liver deaths” on the alcohol industry having “too much clout”.

Katherine Brown of the post-prohibitionist, prohibitionist-funded Institute of Alcohol Studies predictably declares: “we cannot endorse a process in which the alcohol industry is invited to co-create and self-regulate health policy”. So why did the IAS bother to get involved in the first place? It’s all in the game.

Some of the organisations behind the statement make explicit reference to their preferred strategy – to reduce alcohol harm by reducing overall alcohol consumption by, in turn, reducing availability. Their arguments slide easily between harm and consumption almost as if they’re the same thing.

There is, strangely, little mention of pricing, which they agree is the key mechanism for consumption reduction. Perhaps they realise that this government, which, in the words of Alcohol Concern’s Don Shenker, is “in thrall to business”, continues to ramp up tax and duty.

There is also no mention of licensing, which must surely be at the core of any alcohol policy, and which, in its proposed reforms, the government is threatening to roll back the modest progress made by the 2003 Act and shows little care about the realities of operating a licensed trade business in a harsh economic climate.

It’s the pub that’s suffering, and it’s the pub that can play a positive role in managing the social environments in which alcohol is consumed. But the opponents of drink have nothing to say on this.

Indeed, the medical temperance ideology which these groups have tirelessly promoted has, rather than being marginalised in alcohol policy as they suggest, elaborated the ‘drink problem’ and given the government space in which pubs and drinkers are the soft legitimate targets for taxation and policies that play to the readership of the Daily Mail.

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