They're opening a Wetherspoon's on the motorway? Booze Britain's addiction is totally out of control

I am not against anyone enjoying a drink. But it's really started to feel like the drinks industry has a grip on almost every aspect of our culture

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The announcement that the Women’s Prize for Fiction is to be sponsored by Baileys has drawn accusations of sexism. Why pair such a saccharine, sickly drink that is so overtly targeted at women with a contest that celebrates the blistering, strident writing of novelists like Zadie Smith and Lionel Shriver?

Some suggest instead using Johnnie Walker, which, like Baileys, is also owned by drinks company Diageo. But wouldn’t it be better that alcohol was nowhere near a prize the aims of which surely include encouraging girls and young women into novel-writing?

I don’t want to sound like a killjoy. In fact, my twenties and early thirties were effectively sponsored by Sauvignon Blanc (only becoming a parent has driven me away from drink for fear of dealing with both a hangover and a young child at the same time). I am not against anyone enjoying a drink. But it does sometimes feel like the drinks industry has a grip on every aspect of our culture.

In what must be the most bizarre of decisions by a council’s licensing committee, the pub chain JD Wetherspoon has been given the go-ahead for a bar at a motorway service station. If you’re driving down the M40 between 8am and 1am, you can peel off at Junction 2 at Beaconsfield for a pint of lager or a glass of white wine. What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, there is nothing to stop someone on the M40 leaving at the same junction and finding a country pub a few miles away, but they would have to make the special effort. Now they can just have a swift half in between popping to the loo and filling up the tank. The bar will be open by Christmas – just as the nation’s drink-drive levels soar. The health minister, Dr Dan Poulter, described the move as “extraordinary”. As a former hospital doctor, he should know.

Last year, there were more than 1.1 million alcohol-related admissions to hospital – more than double the number 10 years ago. Drink costs the NHS £2.7bn every year, including a £1bn burden on accident and emergency services. Alcohol Concern predicts that this will rise to £3.7bn by 2015. There are many causes of the current crisis in A&E (waiting times are at a nine-year high, it was revealed yesterday), but alcohol is a factor that is growing in significance every year. Nationally, “alcohol admission episodes” for 2010/11 were 1,895 per 100,000 in the population, compared with 1,389 in 2006/07.

During my last visit to an A&E department in south London, I sat in the waiting room for an hour watching other patients arrive. One woman was so drunk she rolled off her chair, vomiting on the floor. A man was carted in by paramedics who described him as “completely pissed”. Another woman, only marginally less drunk, had broken her arm. It was 11 o’clock in the morning.

In my home city of Liverpool, I have walked down streets where, before midday, it is commonplace to see people already staggering from drink. This may sound hysterical, but is backed up by the depressing statistic that Liverpool has the second-highest level of alcohol-related hospital admissions for men (after Salford) in England and the third-highest for women. It is not just traditionally working-class areas that have a problem. A University of Sunderland study found that 60 per cent of women in high-income postcodes – including Knightsbridge in central London and Esher in Surrey – drink more than three units of alcohol a day.

All the evidence is there that we as a nation have a drinking problem, and we cannot handle it. Visiting tourists, including those from the US, gaze open-mouthed at our heavy drinking culture. And yet the Government, for fear of being branded Nanny Statists, has failed to take action. A year ago, David Cameron promised to introduce a minimum price for alcohol, which he said would lead to 900 fewer deaths a year by 2020. It was backed up by a Home Office report saying that minimum pricing would reduce consumption, and, in turn, alcohol-related illness and death. The Prime Minister lamented that beer had become cheaper than water. His words turned out to be cheaper still – earlier this year he dropped the plan. Mr Cameron, it was said, did not want to deny hard-up people a can of lager at the end of the day.

This is a mystery because a year ago, when he pledged the minimum price, our economy was hardly booming. But perhaps the mystery is solved when we consider how hard the drinks industry works. The decision to relax licensing hours under Tony Blair’s government in 2004 was the result of some concerted behind-the-scenes lobbying. Is it just a coincidence that, since that year, hospital admissions have risen so dramatically? The Home Office is currently looking at relaxing laws outlawing pubs on publicly owned land at motorway service stations (the Beaconsfield one is on private land).

And the latest spotlight on the lobbying industry reveals that the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group is sponsored by a roll-call of drinks companies, including Molson Coors, Greene King, Carlsberg, Enterprise Inns, M&B plc, Punch Taverns, and Heineken. The group also received £8,227 from Diageo, owners of Baileys. They do get about, don’t they? It’s enough to turn you to drink.

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