James Nicholls: Binge drinking is only one facet of a wider culture of consumer excess

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The Independent Online

From historically low levels in the first half of the twentieth century, UK alcohol consumption has been steadily rising since the early 1960s.

Wine represents by far the biggest proportion of this increase, although spirit consumption has also risen sharply. One factor is changing tastes; another is the globalization of production and the enormous range of affordable wines we now have access to. Most significant, however, is the rapid expansion in off-sales which began after changes to licensing in 1961 made it easier for supermarkets to sell alcohol.

The rise in off-sales has changed British drinking culture enormously. Today more people drink at home than in pubs and bars, and more people drink heavily at home than in bars. City-centre drunkenness is also exacerbated by drinkers ‘preloading’ on cheap alcohol before making their way to the pub or club.

More recent policy decisions have also had an impact. In 1990, anti-monopoly legislation forced the largest brewers to sell off most of their tied houses. One unintended outcome was that a raft retail-oriented pub chains stepped into the market, developing new bars designed to foster rapid turnover and high unit sales. At the same time central government encouraged a relaxed approach to licensing as local authorities sought to regenerate city centres through investment in the night-time economy. Consequently, by the late 1990s (long before the introduction of 24-hour licensing) many city centres had high concentrations of bars, with large numbers operating extended opening hours.

The drinks industry also changed in the 1990s. Partly in response to the threat posed by rave culture, manufacturers began targeting young consumers with new drinks. Point-of-sale promotions of shots and chasers, two-for-one offers and girls-go-free nights represented a historically unique attempt to market alcohol as a kind of party drug. These developments, of course, coincided with the rampant consumerism of Boom Britannia; binge drinking, we should remember, is only one facet of a wider culture of consumer excess. Nor is it confined to young people: 25-44 year olds drink just as heavily overall, and those with better paid jobs drink more than those on low incomes.

UK alcohol consumption is now flatlining from a historically high peak in 2003. At the same time pub sales are declining while supermarket sales continue to increase. However, while politicians face pressure to tackle the affordability of alcohol, it remains unclear whether this is a policy they feel will win votes as the recession bites and the General Election looms.

James Nicholls is a Senior Lecturer at Bath Spa University. His book The politics of alcohol: a history of the drink question in England is published by Manchester University Press