Izzy John

Izzy John is the SU's Welfare Officer

A budget to remember and a night to forget: thoughts on the coalition's approach to alcohol

 

 

When I lived in California on my year abroad in 2009, I didn’t miss having to carry an umbrella in my bag every time I went out – what I did miss was pubs. Pubs, especially ones as good and homely as those that you find on an English roadside, are virtually non-existent in the Golden State, so when I returned to good old Britannia, I appreciated pubs more than ever and since then the majority of my drinking tends to take place in pubs – a far cry from my fresher days of pre-loading at the kitchen table (or on some occasions Rootes laundrette).

In fact, student drinking habits as a whole have been changing, however subtly, over the last 10 years. Nightclubs are increasingly going into administration or suffered a crackdown from local licensing authorities (rightly so) – and those that do remain aren’t always the cheapest or most pleasant places to drink, meaning that if students do want to go out their tactic is to get so battered first that by the time they arrive in Smack or Kasbah they’re too drunk to notice that they are sticking to the floor (and sometimes the walls).

So students have increasingly started pre-drinking – which isn’t necessarily a new concept, just one that’s caught on a lot more in recent years, and it’s this habit that will probably be the most affected, certainly in terms of cost, by the coalition budget. The minimum price being imposed on units of alcohol available in supermarkets could have a relatively steep impact on student wallets – especially for those partial to cider rather than beer, although the impact will be felt across the board.

To be honest, I don’t take issue with the increase in price per se. I’ve seen a 4-pack of lager in Tesco being sold for a total of 97pence which is utterly ludicrous when food is comparatively so expensive. What I do take issue with is that raising the duty on alcohol is a blunt instrument approach which assumes that people drink alcohol solely because it is cheap, and by the same token, that they will not drink as much alcohol because it is expensive.

It’s dangerous to look at alcohol as if it were difficult to drugs or cigarettes because despite its very different positioning in the social consciousness – as a social lubricant, an aid to “banter”, a work-day wind-down or a celebratory obligation – alcohol is and always has been an addictive drug with devastating effects. When the Labour government banned smoking in indoor public spaces, this didn’t stop people from smoking - but it did alter the culture of smoking at the same time as decreasing the effects of second-hand smoke on non-smokers.

If the coalition government is serious about tackling alcohol abuse, they must not become complacent and think that raising prices is the way to do so. Alcohol is embedded in the lifestyle of people in this country, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that if health and social responsibility are likewise embedded. Students in particular have started frequenting pubs, washing down their drinks with food instead of simply sinking pints. This reflects a shift in social and spending habits as well as drinking habits – students are becoming more aware of the fact that where you could spend £40 on a night out (pre-drinks, taxi, club entry, drinks, taxi) you could spend £20 on some pub grub and a few pints, and actually be able to chat to your friends at the same time instead of having your eardrums destroyed by yet another song that consists mostly of autotuned vowels.

Most crucially, this is yet another example of a relatively crude policy (albeit it has not been passed into law yet and is unlikely to do so until 2014) that will hit the poorest hardest, and once again assumes that “social problems” like alcohol abuse and anti-social behaviour are confined to the working-class. In my mind, a one-size fits all policy is not enough – a strategy that considers the particular patterns of poorer people, students, richer people, families, single people and so on separately is a lot more work, but is most definitely necessary if the roots of dangerous drinking habits are to be discovered and tackled effectively.

My central beliefs about drinking remain unchanged in the light of the budget – firstly, education around alcohol needs to start at an early age. We learn about the dangers of unprotected sex, drugs and smoking in school, but alcohol is seen as an afterthought. The fantastic work by Drink Aware needs to be continuously promoted and supermarkets need to realise that putting a barely noticeable logo on their advertisements is not good enough . Universities and Students’ Unions need to work together to ensure that the drinking culture in universities, especially during freshers’ week, is not seen as the norm. Bar crawls, in my opinion, need to be completely opposed, as do initiations for clubs and societies – and clubs where the staff serve customers who are already blind-drunk and then kick them out in a weakened state need some serious education about duty of care, or at the very least need to be reminded that they can refuse to serve someone if they see fit.

Ultimately, people need to realise that being drunk out of your skull isn’t a great plan. I can’t even remember the last time I was drunk but I still have lots of fun on nights out and I spend far less on painkillers for the next morning as a result. I hope the Government’s long-term strategy will highlight the benefits of not drinking as much as the pitfalls of drinking in excess, and when it does, I’ll be in the pub celebrating – but responsibly. 

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