Ironically, in the light of what was published today, I wrote this several days ago for publication in a national, I have to say that when I called for more stringent punishment at point of sale, the ridiculous figures that are being bandied about are more than a little OTT, and shouldn't apply if it's a first offence, should be more repeat offender based. But anyway, it never made it to print, so here you go!
After just over 10 years of being involved in the licensed trade I've come to the conclusion that virtually every proposal or piece of legislation I've seen or heard proposed has merely been a sticking plaster on the boil of problem drinking in this country.
And it seems it’s about to get worse. It seems the Conservatives, alongside their bizarre alcohol labelling plans announced this morning, are planning to tax what they call higher alcohol 'problem drinks'.
But who decides what qualifies as a 'problem' drink? Groups like the Institute of Alcohol Studies*, which is funded by the Temperance movement but masquerades as an independent research body? The BMA or another faction of the health lobby? Because it won’t be any of the bodies who allegedly represent the pub or drinks industry, they’re too busy fighting amongst themselves and, most importantly, who’s going to speak for the consumer?
My big issue with the ‘tax it at the source’ approach is that it completely fails to address the core issue of alcohol abuse in the UK - it's not what's made, it's how it's sold.
Let's take the recent release of Tactical Nuclear Penguin, the 32%ABV beer from BrewDog, as an example - this beer was sold only through limited specialist retailers and cost minimum of £30 for 330cl bottle, and the only purveyor in London was limiting the sale to one bottle per person.
However, if you go to your local Sainsbury's, you can buy as many bottles as you like of 350ml bottles of Sainsbury's Dry London Gin at 37.5%ABV for £4.68 a bottle.
If you're looking to abuse alcohol, which one are you going to buy? Not a toughie is it?
And, to be honest, where's the deterrent not to serve people who are drunk? I was told the other day that tattooists are automatically banned if it's found they ink someone who is under-18, so perhaps a more strenuous enforcement of the licensing laws around serving people who are clearly incapacitated, or looking to get that way, (particularly in supermarkets and convenience stores) is what's needed?
And let's take a look at the failure of licensing reform to change us all into sensible, continental-style drinkers, is that anything to do with flexible opening hours? No, it's because we're a nation obsessed with standing up in pubs with a pint, not eating before we go out and having about 600,000 different ways of saying drunk - it's in our psyche.
But instead of trying to challenge that outlook by encouraging the young to get used to alcohol and see it as the norm, rather than something illicit to be abused, we try to keep them away until they are 18 and 'responsible' - yep, that's working!
I've never understood this attitude. Being in pubs, around different age groups, in a safer environment than a street corner or park bench, allows the learning of social norms, where teenagers will be picked up on poor behaviour or be ejected from the environment where all their mates are - it's an excellent way to learn how to act in public and around alcohol.
And as for saying that the use of units on labelling should be replaced with how many centilitres of alcohol there are in each bottle is just bonkers given that most of country is just beginning to get a handle on the concept of units!
I'm not saying I have all the answers here, I'm aware this is a complex issue with a lot of economic implications for any Government way past my understanding, all I know is, alcohol isn't evil and penalising producers and sensible drinkers who would like to share a 33oml bottle of 32% beer with their partner, over time and in the comfort of their own home or in a couple of armchairs next to a fire in a pub, isn't the answer.
*Depressingly, I exposed the Institute of Alcohol Studies nine years ago, when I worked for the Morning Advertiser. Then in 2005 I appeared on NewsWatch to challenge the producer of the BBC's show Britain's Streets of Booze on a lot of factual errors in the show, including putting a spokesperson from IAS forward on the show as 'independent’. Unbelievably they were then invited to advise the European Union in 2006 on their alcohol strategy, still claiming to be independent.