Simon Carr: A price rise isn't going to stop teenagers binge-drinking

Alcohol abuse is one of our most enduring national characteristics
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The Independent Online

A minimum price for alcohol? The Chief Medical Officer is saying that a floor price of 50 pence per unit of alcohol should be imposed in order to make bingeing less attractive to young drinkers. The higher price will suppress demand, theory tells him. The Department of Health has evaluated the pricing structure and has issued the (surely bogus) figure that a minimum price of 50p a unit will suppress alcohol consumption by 7 per cent.

It's not entirely clear at the time of writing who gets the money, incidentally. It's assumed to be a tax. The fact that the money will be earmarked to help pay for the social costs of alcohol is helping to sell the idea. But of course, if the money goes into the Treasury it will go out again to the banks. No one's going to like that.

Maybe the money will simply go back into the industry? There would be some fairness in that: The pub chain Wetherspoon released figures last week showing how their 700 pubs made average profits of £50,000 and paid average taxes of £530,000. The Government looks at the industry and says, "One for you ... and 10 for me". I wouldn't want to be the minister who says, "one for you and 12 or 13 or 14 for me". That's a tax policy that will call a future generation to the barricades.

Excessive drinking isn't one of those things that can be easily dialled down. One of our most enduring national characteristics is alcohol abuse. It wasn't just the medieval wool booms that gave our small farmers time and money to sit around getting sloshed. We have been famous intoxicants from our earliest days.

In Wihtred's Code published in 695AD, his 6th Law specified a penalty for a priest too drunk to baptise a dying man. There were very few laws in those days, so it obviously happened often enough to warrant a specific mention.

Having said that, a Gin Lane mentality has been developing over recent years. In the days of my dear old dad, people drank quite differently, perhaps because they didn't have much money. A single measure of spirits and those mean little wine glasses – they were what we were used to. The British sitting room drinks cabinet had a half bottle of spirits in the back somewhere. It was hardly drinking at all.

And it must be said, the way my father administered wine through lunch was a masterclass. You always felt slightly under-supplied until about two thirds of the way through the meal when a switch was thrown in your head and a great contentment descended on you. What a role model he was.

But then it shows that role models don't always work because I turned into a guzzler. And God knows what example I've given my children. I only hope they haven't been keeping a publishable diary.

One of them left a family-sized, two-litre bottle of white cider by my computer one night and that seemed to me to be entirely new. For a couple of quid you get nearly four pints of 7 per cent alcohol. I drink too much myself to work out how many units that represents. But it really is dead drunk for a fiver, isn't it?

And is that going to be turned around by increasing the price of a beer four-pack from £2.99 to £3.40? Is that going to decrease alcohol consumption or raise the level of pocket-money? Is 50p here and there going to disperse the street corner groups of swearing 12-year-olds? Without of course wanting to stigmatise the little darlings, some of them really deserve to be thrown into the canal.

Things have changed a lot in the last generation, but one thing certainly hasn't. The eternal cry of teenagers is still: "There's nothing to do!" That is the really intractable problem: getting drunk may be many things, but it isn't boring for the drinker. And when temptation is matched by the opportunities afforded by street corners, co-operative retailers, youth-friendly dance clubs and 24-hour licensing, then they really are being drafted through a very specific set of gates.

The challenge of keeping teenagers busy doesn't get any easier, and raising the price of alcohol isn't going to do it. Let's be optimistic. It's possible that more attentive police may not just add to the problem. We have the laws – they should be enforced.

But this age group really need to be taken in hand – by their teachers, club leaders, drama directors, sports coaches, apprentice supervisors, weapons trainers ...

The drinkers will still drink but at least it won't be all they do.