Leadership or laissez-faire on alcohol?

Greater leadership is needed on excessive alcohol consumption argues Chas Booth

When I spent a night shift shadowing the council officers responsible for policing the city’s pubs, clubs and off-licences some months back, I saw the good, the bad and the ugly of the licensed trade.

I was taken to well-run pubs which have won awards for their responsible approach to drinking. I was taken to stand-up boozers where the police are regularly called to attend to problems. And later I witnessed closing-time for some of the city’s clubs, and saw the effect that many hours excessive drinking can have on people.

Scotland has a difficult relationship with alcohol. Taken in moderation it can be a wonderful social lubricant. I’m certainly no teetotaller myself. But when it is taken to excess it can lead to considerable health, social and economic problems.

The obvious effects of excessive boozing are the immediate ones: vomit on the pavement, fights at drinking up time, admissions to Accident and Emergency on a Friday or Saturday night.

But there are less visible effects of excessive alcohol consumption too: alcohol is a factor in 1 in 3 divorces; nearly half of all prisoners in Scotland admitted to being drunk at the time of their offence; and a Scot dies of an alcohol-attributable cause every 3 hours.

In other words, in the average 6 hour meeting of Edinburgh’s Licensing Board, somewhere in Scotland two people will have died as a result of alcohol misuse.

So I find it astonishing that, just last week, Edinburgh’s licensing board added another two off-licenses to the 8 existing shops licensed to sell booze in the Tollcross area of the city. That brings the total number of alcohol outlets to 10 within a 250-metre radius. There is clear evidence that, after price, availability is the most important factor affecting consumption of alcohol. In other words, if we make it more readily available, more alcohol will be consumed.

Since Scots already drink far more than is healthy, surely it would be responsible to start to limit that supply, where evidence supports this?

The two new applications last week were opposed by the Police, NHS Lothian and by the local community council. And yet the board voted by 5 votes to 3 to approve the applications.

I find it strange that some of my fellow board members seem happy to brush off these objections with a blithe ‘I don’t believe the evidence’ yet seem reluctant to take up a police offer to join them on a city centre Friday night shift. If we, as a board, are to take informed decisions on alcohol licences, surely we should see all aspects of the trade, including the damage excessive consumption can do?

Fundamentally, Scotland’s relationship with alcohol needs to be rebalanced. But until licensing boards like Edinburgh’s stop nodding through applications for new licenses in areas where the professionals tell us they are likely to make problems worse, then our relationship with booze will continue to impose huge social, economic and health costs.