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Educating a nation

Published:  18 January, 2007

Is raising the price of alcohol for the consumer the way to stop binge drinking? Jeremy Beadles shares his thoughts.

Early in September, Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill announced that he plans to introduce restrictions on the price and siting of alcohol in shops.

For many people, sitting at home with a nice glass of wine or a gin and tonic, this may seem like a good idea. The media has made much about how cheap alcohol is, and claims that if only the price were to rise, the problems would go away.

If that were true, I would support the measures announced by Mr MacAskill, but this is simply not the case.

In the UK, we have a long cultural history of alcohol misuse and it is far too simplistic to say "price + availability = alcohol misuse". The evidence can be found on our doorstep. The UK has some of the highest alcohol taxes in Europe and we pay 1.33 on a bottle of wine, compared to 2p in France and nothing in Italy, Portugal and Spain - countries that don't have the same issues. Whereas countries with higher prices, such as Sweden and Finland, have similar problems to us.

Instead, I believe it's about working out why people want to drink, not just a couple of glasses for relaxation and enjoyment, but enough to get drunk. The attitude of certain sectors of society today is that this is how to have fun. Rather than try to nanny this behaviour out of society, surely we want to encourage people to make decisions about alcohol based on their knowledge of alcohol.

We should make better use of the education and information routes available to us. For too long, alcohol has languished in school education, making the occasional appearance between illegal drugs, tobacco and sexually transmitted diseases. This shouldn't be the case.

Although we are making some progress with "units", a recent survey showed that consumer understanding of units is woeful. Parents, schools, the Government, media, medics and the industry all have roles to play in educating and informing consumers.

If people better understood alcohol and how it might affect them, they would be better able to make decisions. This may not have an immediate impact on problem drunks, teen drinkers or rampaging stag parties, but attitudes are influenced by society at large. If alcohol is seen as something to be respected, and drunkeness becomes increasingly unacceptable, it will eventually influence the way we, as a nation, drink.

Jeremy Beadles is chief executive of the Wine?&?Spirit Trade Association