Britain most certainly needs an alcohol strategy. Deaths from liver disease have gone up by more than a quarter in less than a decade, the vast majority of them a result of excessive drinking. Long-term alcohol-related health problems of all kinds now cost the NHS nearly £3bn every year – which is perhaps not surprising given that a fifth of women and nearly a third of men drink more than is advisable, and that Britain is one of Europe's worst offenders when it comes to binge drinking.
Neither is health the only issue. A boozier Britain is also one with more crime, more anti-social behaviour, more unwanted pregnancies, and more people dead on the roads. It is a place where town centres – and accident and emergency departments – too often descend into violent mayhem on Friday and Saturday nights, where university is synonymous with £1-a-pint promotions, and where young Brits take southern European holidays with the express purpose of drinking far more than their bodies can bear.
The Government's commitment to tackle the problem is therefore welcome, and the strategy published yesterday makes plenty of good suggestions. Plans for greater local control over licensing have much to recommend them, as do proposals to extend council powers to limit the number of bars and pubs in one place. Higher fines for selling to underage drinkers, and an extra levy on late-night sales to contribute to the cost of policing, are also sensible.
The centrepiece of the reforms is also one of the most controversial. By setting a minimum unit price for alcohol, which will raise prices in supermarkets, the Government hopes to stop people bingeing at home before they go out. For all the claims that the Government is tilting at the wrong target, the move is a good one. It is true that there is also a problem with middle-class professionals knocking back too much wine each night. But the fact remains that it is a topsy-turvy world where a can of lager can be bought for as little as 20p and the supermarkets' loss leader of choice is one that costs individuals and society so dear.
Taken together, then, there is much to support in the Government's plans. But they do not go anywhere near far enough. Britain's biggest problem with alcohol is one of culture, rather than either economics or law and order. So long as it is considered acceptable – even normal – to become uncontrollably drunk, then the problems of overconsumption will remain. And while the Government's strategy acknowledges the cultural element, it ducks the most obvious response.
When it comes to changing cultural norms, there is much to be learned from tobacco. The situation is, of course, not entirely the same. After all, most people drink in moderation and cause no damage to themselves or their surroundings. But there are still some obvious pointers. A good place to start would be in educating our children. That means not just frowning on drinking, which all too often merely encourages it. It means hard lessons about the effects of excessive alcohol, and not just dry statistics but graphic images.
More than anything else, however, it is advertising that needs to be tackled. The Government claims that the drinks industry is playing a constructive part in promoting responsible drinking. Perhaps it is. But it is not enough. Neither are the existing rules on where, when and how alcohol can be marketed. Tinkering with pricing is all well and good. But to make a real difference, the Government should call time on alcohol advertising altogether. Sports sponsorship should also be phased out, just as it was with tobacco.
Britain most certainly needs a strategy on alcohol. So far, it has only half of one.