We're heading for the booziest Christmas ever

It was as though the Government signalled that it wanted people to smoke less and drink more
Click to follow
It is going to be a boozy Christmas. Flip on the TV and the ads delight with the wonderful world of alcohol. Open a Sunday colour supplement and there is page after page of adverts - some funny, some snobbish, some laddish, some loutish. The only thing they don't proclaim about their products is that they make you drunk. Of course they all do that provided you keep at it, and what ads are about is product differentiation.

We won't know the figures for another month, but it would be surprising if official Christmas drink sales are not a record for the 1990s. Add in drink brought from France and the total sales will be even higher. Sales will be record not because of the persuasiveness of the Hooch Man ads and the like on our young people, whatever the moralists would claim. No, drink sales are going to be very strong for two reasons, one short term, the other long term.

The short-term explanation is straightforward. At times of rising consumer confidence and sharply rising real incomes people tend, so to speak, to splash out. This is purely a cyclical effect. This Christmas happens to come at a time when the country is experiencing a consumer boom similar to that of the run-up to the 1987 election. All retail spending will be high, but spending on drink is elastic: if people feel richer they tend to spend disproportionately more on the stuff. So spending on alcohol will be particularly high, even compared with spending on other consumer items.

The buoyancy will be further encouraged by a drink-friendly Budget: spirits down in price, and a standstill on beer duty. True, duty on alcopops rose sharply, but this is still quite a small market. It was as though the Government was signalling that it wanted people to smoke less and drink more. Remember, though, that this is cyclical. There will be a slow-down in growth somewhere out there in the future. There will be a squeeze on consumer incomes. There will be a government that is desperate to raise more revenue, and hit the obvious targets. So at some stage this buoyancy will be reversed. It is very evident now, but it won't last.

The longer-term reason why drink sales might rise is harder to demonstrate, but in a way more interesting. We know that there are giant long-term swings in social attitudes, swings that last a century or more. There are swings in crime, swings in social conformity and, unsurprisingly, also swings in attitudes to the consumption of alcohol.

In England we now drink only about two-thirds as much as we did in the last century, and perhaps half as much as in the century before. And it is not just England. A colleague tells me that the traditional Spanish breakfast was brandy and grapes, and of course the Scottish equivalent was porridge and whisky. (According to excise statistics the Scots drank two gallons of whisky a year for every man, woman and child in the early part of the last century, and probably as much again of untaxed home-brewed.)

But if we drink less than we did 100 to 200 years ago, we do drink twice as much as in the inter-war period. Between 1950 and 1988 there was a steady rise in consumption. Then there was a plateau, and three or four years ago it even looked as though the trend might again turn down. The drink industry, which is very important to the UK, was worried that it might face the same sort of social pressures as tobacco. In the US the puritan lobby seemed to be gaining ground, while the corporate ethic against alcohol seemed to be pushing Americans into the Nordic practice of not drinking at all during the working week and therefore having to cram all their consumption into Friday and Saturday evening.

Now the puritan backlash, at least in the UK, seems less likely to take hold for a number of reasons.

First, because people in general, and the young in particular, seem to be taking a more responsible attitude to drinking and driving. While every death or injury on the roads is a tragedy, and there is absolutely no room for complacency, there does seem to be a secure downward trend in drunken driving.

Second, in so far as we can believe any statistics about health, there does seem to be some health advantage in moderate drinking. The British Heart Foundation certainly thinks so. There is also a fascinating study on alcohol and mortality in New Zealand, carried out by the University of Auckland, which suggested that alcohol cut the death rate of the middle aged and elderly, but added to the death rate of the young. In absolute numbers of deaths, though not years of life lost, there was a gain from drinking. In an ideal world I suppose you would try to discourage the young from drinking and encourage the old. But there are obvious practical difficulties in imposing such a policy! Clearly, what you have to try to do is to encourage moderation, but that is not an easy trick to pull either.

Third, it may be that what might be called the southern European ethos about drinking - little and often rather than the periodic binge - is spreading north. There are lots of little signs: the Swedish government making alcohol sales more attractive by privatising its liquor monopoly; the move to continental European (ie lower) tax levels on alcohol here; the tendency for places serving alcohol to serve food too, and so on.

The thing about big social swings is that they are impossible to chart until long afterwards. It is impossible to prove that the long-term trend in drinking alcohol is still rising, but it feels like it. And it feels like it, not just by observing the office party scene this festive season, or even observing the Hooch Man on the box. Now, when they start advertising Hooch to the elderly for medicinal reasons ... but I suspect the elderly would have better taste.