An extraordinary amount of media attention focuses on alcohol consumption and its impact on public order and health. But as Professor Dick Hobbs shows in ESRC’s new report Seven Deadly Sins, while ‘binge drinking’ youths dominate the headlines, it is older drinkers that are most likely to succumb to alcohol-related death.
What’s more, Professor Hobbs argues, it is the logic of the market and not the logic derived from careful data analysis that informs government policy on alcohol. As a society, we embrace the ‘night-time economy’ – and the jobs, urban regeneration and taxation that the industry generates – while seeking to punish the routine transgressions of its primary consumers.
Hobbs notes that the term ‘binge drinking’ is rarely used to describe the drinking habits of anyone other than young denizens of the night-time economy. Binge drinking is seldom linked with alcohol-related diseases, with accidents in the home or with domestic violence. Indeed, since publication of the government’s alcohol strategy, where a binge drinker is described as someone who drinks to get drunk, the term has become a remarkably pliant device to implicate individuals perhaps more accurately described as ‘young people drunk and disorderly in public places’.
As such, binge drinkers are indispensable folk devils. They are noisy, urinate in public and violent. This brings them into conflict with an undermanned police force, which can be depicted on most nights of the week wrestling heroically with foul-mouthed, vomit-stained youths in an attempt to restore the city centre to daytime levels of comportment.
Despite alcohol being our drug of choice, the source is not typically regarded as a problem. Alcohol is a legal drug and so there are no attempts to bring down the ‘Mr Bigs’ of the alcohol industry. Indeed, the main dealers are ensconced with the police and politicians in crime reduction committees and urban regeneration partnerships.
Until the 2001 general election campaign, there was a general reluctance on behalf of government agencies to acknowledge problems related to the night-time economy. But Labour’s campaign that year coincided with new figures on alcohol-related assaults uncovered by the British Crime Survey, which indicated that teenage males who frequently visit pubs and clubs and drink heavily are most at risk from violent assault.
Yet government statements about the night-time economy remain guarded in relation to links with violence. This reluctance needs to be understood in the context of investment in the night-time economy running at £1 billion a year and growing at an annual rate of 10%, with the turnover of the pub and club industry constituting 3% of GDP, numbers of licensed premises having increased by over 30% during the past 25 years and the sector employing around one million people, creating ‘one in five of all new jobs’.
The night-time economy has had a transformative influence on UK cities, and is part of our society’s shift from industrial to post-industrial economic development. Successive governments have embraced this new economy as an alternative to the nation’s increasingly decrepit manufacturing base, and proud city centre shrines to our industrial past have been revitalised by shiny outlets for alcohol consumption.
The numbers of young people flocking into these new centres of alcohol consumption are unprecedented. For example, in 1997, the licence capacity of Nottingham’s tiny city centre was 61,000: by 2004, that had risen to 108,000, while Manchester city centre has a stunning capacity of 250,000.
The Labour Party signalled its intention to embrace the night-time economy during the 1997 general election, when they solicited the student vote with text messages that read: ‘Cldnt gve a XXXX 4 lst ordrs? Thn vte Labr on thrsday 4 extra time’.
As the new decade progressed, the real story behind the ’24-hour society’ began to emerge, and the concentration of huge numbers of young alcohol consumers has created environments where aggressive hedonism and disorder is the norm.
But rather than reject a major facet of their own economic policies, and recognise the night-time economy as a criminogenic zone that was having a negative impact on their own crime and social order targets, official discussion has focused on the problematic consumer in the ‘tired and emotional’ shape of the binge drinker.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party’s infamous text message has been operationalised in the form of revolutionary changes in the nation’s licensing laws. But the entire research community was opposed to the Act, citing evidence that to have an impact on alcohol-related harm, it is vital to reduce consumption by imposing more extensive controls rather than fewer. Yet despite its insistence on ‘evidence-based’ policy-making, the government’s agenda of liberalisation of the retailing of alcohol continues unabated.
From Economic Research Council