Should we ban cheap booze? Or tell medics, and now church leaders, to mind their own business and leave how much we drink and what we spend to us?
Doctors argue they are minding their own business. Our health is their business. And right now the nation’s health is in freefall because, medics warn, the drop in drinks prices, and the rise in stress levels, tempts more to stock up and swig more of the stuff at home.
Blackpool has the highest rates of chronic liver disease in the country and one of the lowest life expectancies, particularly for men.
Blackpool’s director of public health, Dr Arif Rajpura supports strategies for imposing a minimum price policy on alcohol – below which prices must not fall – contending: “Cheap alcohol is costing the NHS dearly.” There’s also concern at numbers of younger drinkers pre-loading, drinking more at home, before going out, generally later, to top up.
Now the Methodist, Baptist and United Reform Churches have added their voice to health professionals calling for minimum prices on alcohol – after a survey highlighted the impact on communities of so-called feral kids getting smashed on cheap booze and running amok.
Ruth Pickles, vice president of the Methodist Conference, says: “We want a minimum unit price – not a minimum cost price which is what the government has agreed.”
Critics say loss leading cheap beers and spirits marketed by discount outlets, supermarkets and bar owners are partly to blame for the rot in health – and social standards. Yet the footfall has fallen just as assuredly at churches as it has at community pubs, signs of the times seen in the numbers of churches as well as pubs shut.
Health secretary Andrew Lansley, who is preparing to launch a new year drive aimed at ending the country’s binge drinking culture, concedes deep rooted drinking habits won’t be curbed by a rise in the price of booze.
“The causes of binge drinking are too complex to be solved simply by raising prices,” he says.
“Alcohol consumption and alcohol misuse are not on a straight line to each other. Are we saying because a bottle of vodka isn’t £8 but £12.50 they won’t preload with vodka for a night out when they are in clubs where they pay £5 for a drink?
“They’re still going to binge drink because it’s a behaviour issue.”
With the jingle of tills accompanied by the jangle of bottles in supermarket trolleys shoppers are rattled by moves to ban cheap booze. Blackpool office worker Sarah Dawson, who stocks up as Asda, says: “Oh, give us a break. Drink is part of the spirit of Christmas.
“I’ve not had a girls’ night out for ages, we’re not having an office party, and we’re working to silly o’clock each day.
“We’ll probably all relax by having a drop too much.
“ I look for deals on supermarket comparison sites then hit the shops but I never leave with just drink in the trolley.”
Mike Mason, 24, of Llandudno, working as a contractor in Blackpool until April, swoops on six boxes of brand name lager, two for £16, at Sainsbury’s, to stash for Christmas at the seafront flat shared with three other workers, who have stocked up on Becks and Stella.
“Do the maths,” says Mike. “£16 for two, normally £13.99 for one, 15 bottles, 275ml. It brings it down to about 50p a bottle. Sorted...”
Plea not to punish the pubs...
Blackpool Pubwatch chairman Craig Southall (right) argues it is time for all elements of society to put their houses in order - but not at the expense of the drinks trade.
“We’ve put up with enough,” he adds. “The way forward is through education not eradication. Right across society. Get to the kids faster. Re-educate drinkers.
“Take it from me, if minimum pricing is forced through it may be 50p this year, 60p next, and before long it will be £3 for a half lager, so don’t say you weren’t warned, and pubs will be priced out of existence.
“We need to find the fundamental root causes of why people drink to excess, rather than what they drink or how much they pay.
“Petrol prices have gone up but people haven’t stopped driving. People who drink will always find money for drink.
“Whatever happens supermarkets will win. I buy my own drink there to drink at home, but also spend on food. But if you want an experience, and not just a drink, go out to a pub ... and that’s what you’re paying for, the surrounds, a manager looking out for you, entertainment, atmosphere, meeting other people and not sitting at home socially networking with a bottle of cheap lager. We’re losing out on real community spirit.”
Craig, licensee of town centre Yates, says publicans are coping with a double whammy of reduced office parties and the loss of Friday as the definitive night out because of longer working hours or shorter cash.
He adds: “This Friday represents the first big Friday night out in ages because most want a clear head for Christmas Day.
“Saturday’s taken over as the big night out.”