Wednesday, 2 September 2009

drop down dead drunk

Yesterday’s accounts of the OECD report Doing Better For Children make disturbing but perhaps not surprising reading for anyone concerned about children and young people’s welfare in the UK. Take for example this quote from the report:

"Underage drinking and teenage pregnancy rates [in the UK] are high. Drunkenness is the highest in the OECD. The UK also reports the fourth highest teenage pregnancy rate after Mexico, Turkey and the United States."

Drunkenness is the highest in the OECD. Two personal experiences from last week might help explain the context for these figures. Last Monday I was in Iceland buying some food and at theiceland checkout noticed a display for 75cl bottles of Vodka: Price £5.50p. A little while later I looked at the front page of the local newspaper to discover that Duke’s, a Chelmsford town centre night club, was offering punters ‘£15 all you can drink’ nights – pay up front and drink the night away.

What these examples highlight are two factors that must have an impact on consumption of alcohol in this country; availability and cost. Lou Manzi the boss of Duke’s justified his pricing and availability policy in the following terms:

“None of us would seriously offer half-priced, discounted or all-in offers if we did not have to. It’s a matter of commercial survival like any other retail business.”

But the drinks industry is not just like any other retail business; it trades in a substance that can bring enjoyment but can also cause great harm, that is why the industry is regulated and there are laws governing the sale and consumption of alcohol. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against alcohol and enjoy a pint or a bottle of wine. I also recognise that there have been times in my life when I have drunk too much and I have seen the damage that alcohol has caused in broken relationships, violence, chronic disease and loss of life. In every parish I have served as a minister I can think of people whose lives were severely damaged if not ruined by drink. I married into a family of doctors and am all too familiar with the impact of alcohol abuse on the resources of the NHS.

Back in the 1970s I had a Saturday job in a Tesco store (in the days before it was seen as part of the evil empire). The drinks section consisted of a small part of one aisle with a few shelves stocked with a small selection of bottles of wine and cans of beer and larger. Today the drinks section in the average superstore takes up both sides of a whole aisle plus various other displays throughout the store. Those same stores have perpetual offers to encourage high volumes of sales, the classic being the 5% discount for 6 or more bottles of wine purchased. A few weeks ago I was shopping in a store and needed to spend over £50 to get a significant discount on petrol. I was a bit under the amount so added another bottle of wine to the shopping only to see the price drop below £50 once the wine discount was added so I added another bottle!

wine Two other factors to mention. In a bar with a colleague over lunch I observed three businessmen buy a bottle of wine which was then emptied into three large wine glasses. Not only were the glasses large, 250ml each, but the alcoholic content of the wine was high at 14%. I say high but actually 14% is fairly standard these days for a New World red, whereas not long ago 12.5% would have been the average. The same is true of the strength of beer and larger.

Four factors which provide the context for the OECD report: price, availability, volume and content. Yet, the saddest aspect about alcohol consumption in the UK is that so many people, including young people and children, seem to be drinking simply to get drunk and these factors serve that purpose. Why and what response can we make?

Right, I’m off to put the wine I bought on holiday in my cellar!

My post on teenage pregnancy and abortion can be found here.

Nicke Baines has posted a related blog to the OECD report here.

Church Mouse has commented on the OECD report here.

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