A headache for the drinks industry

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The Independent Online
THE BOOZE industry is worried. There is a whiff of puritanism in the air in the United States, and it is feared this may spread to the UK. The Clinton administration has been hinting at higher taxes on alcohol; largely to raise revenue and address the budget deficit, but also to discourage consumption.

Here there is less concern about higher taxes, for Britain already has, with Ireland and Denmark, the highest alcohol taxes in the European Community. But there are fears about further restrictions on advertising - that drinks advertising might go the way of tobacco advertising (as it has in France) and that what the industry perceives as a generally hostile climate might undermine long-term demand.

This is an issue that matters a lot for Britain for purely commercial reasons: this country has three of the top four spirits firms in the world. Grand Metropolitan and Guinness are the two largest, followed by the Canadian Seagram, with Allied-Lyons fourth. Unfairly perhaps, it seems to be the distillers who catch the flak, not the wine trade. If drinking were to go out of style, this country would be hit as hard as any.

Yet drink is one of those areas where perception is far removed from reality - and not in the obvious way. One might think that Britain, with its pub culture and its lager louts, drinks a lot. Not true. Britons nowadays drink remarkably little, both by the standards of the past and by the standards of people in other industrial countries.

The graph shows how Britons now drink only two-thirds as much as they did in the Victorian period, and half as much as during the 18th century. True, we drink roughly twice as much as we did between the mid-Twenties and early Fifties. Between 1950 and 1988 there was a pretty steady rise, as consumerism eroded the Protestant ethic, but consumption has been stable since then, and the long-term trend may still be down.

Compared also with other countries, Britons drink relatively little: we are two-thirds of the way down the league table, drinking little more than half as much as the French at the top. Again, stereotypes mislead, for one of the few European countries that drinks less than Britain is Ireland. (Aside from the Nordic countries, where taxation is even higher than in the UK, the most notable other 'stay-low' country has been Yugoslavia.)

Why then is drinking such an issue? Drunken driving, health and a more general worry about public behaviour seem to be the main reasons.

On the first, the facts again seem to conflict with common belief. All the evidence suggests that drunken driving is a problem which is gradually diminishing. The decline may be a result of vigorous anti- drink-driving campaigns. These, in turn, may well have contributed to the fact that road deaths last year were the lowest since the Twenties. Every death or injury is one too many, and a tragedy for the people involved. What is probably happening is that society is cutting drunken driving by making it socially unacceptable. In other words, reason would suggest that we could be less concerned about drunken driving because the figures are improving, whereas it may be precisely because there is greater public concern that people are behaving in a more responsible way.

Health is more difficult because two issues have become confused: the conflicting evidence of the effect of alcohol on health; and the efficacy of high tax rates in reducing serious drinking problems.

Most of the industrial world is showing increased concern about health, in the sense that a large segment of the population is seeking to lead a more healthy lifestyle. But while heavy drinking indisputably brings grave health and social consequences, there is evidence that light drinking may actually improve people's health. If it didn't, the French would be dying like flies, whereas they live rather longer than Britons. France does have a serious health problem in liver cirrhosis - levels approximately six times ours - but it has substantially fewer cases of heart disease. As Desmond Julian, of the British Heart Foundation, said recently: 'Most epidemiologists accept that moderate consumption of alcohol probably has a protective effect on the heart.'

The policy problem is how to attack heavy drinkers without being unreasonable to moderate ones. Even higher taxation, were it practicable within the EC, would cut drinking - Scandinavian experience confirms that. But it is not so clear that it would cut problem drinking. The two-a- day drinker might cut to one- and-a-half, but the 10-a-day person might not cut back at all.

The sensible conclusion is surely that if we are concerned about alcohol and its effects on health we should try to change destructive drinking habits, rather than focus on the overall amount of drink consumed.

The more general worry about public behaviour is the hardest to pin down. That people are worried about disruptive and threatening behaviour is not in dispute. But in other countries people get drunk without necessarily behaving badly: walk through Roppongi in Tokyo at 10pm and people are swaying all over the street, but they are not yelling abuse, picking fights or breaking car aerials. Maybe, two or three centuries ago, when Britons drank so much more than they do today, they behaved better, though the evidence of the cartoons of Hogarth and Rowlandson suggests that our ancestors were pretty hopeless when it came to drink, too. They could, however, climb on a horse and it would find its way home; cars do not have that facility.

And there is the rub. In Tokyo they take the tube and train home; in Britain, and even more so in North America, people rely on the car. That, more than the resurgence of puritanism in the US, is surely the drinks industry's weakest flank. The health arguments for moderate drinking at least are quite positive. There will always be plenty of people who are prepared to resist the bossiness of the temperence lobby; most will accept a bit of lager-loutishness if that is the price for living in a reasonably liberal society. No one is in favour of drunken driving. A little less effort by the industry to advertise designer lagers and a little more to combat drunken driving would help keep the puritans at bay.