18 Mar 2010

Boozing Britain: calling time on cheap alcohol

The government puts off a decision on introducing minimum price for alcohol in England and Wales, as public health officials warn cheap drink is bringing a public health crisis in the North East.

Channel 4 News has learned the National Institute of Clinical Excellence will also back minimum pricing after the general election.

However ministers said today the most effective way of tackling problems caused by alcohol was through education, rather than price controls.

The government in Scotland is already planning to introduce minimum pricing.

In January, the Commons Health Select Committee accused the government of failing to address the damage done by alcohol, which costs society around £20bn a year.

It said policies “encouraged consumption” and being “too influenced by…the drinks industry and the supermarkets.”

The committee members aren’t the only ones saying that not enough is being done to solve the country’s cheap alcohol crisis.

A group of directors of public health from the north-east of England recently wrote an open letter decrying the fact that alcohol can now be bought for as little as 12 pence a unit.

With a week’s pocket money of £6.24, they wrote, it’s possible to buy enough alcohol to drink twice the recommended daily limit for an adult male, every day of the week.

Channel 4 News spoke to some of the letter-writers, and what they told us about what’s happening across their region – and across the country – was so shocking we decide to go and see for ourselves.

We filmed in cities, towns and villages across the north-east. Some are thriving, regenerated communities; others are falling apart and forgotten. But wherever you live, you live somewhere like here.

And wherever you go – in the alleyways and the parks, the living rooms and the bars, outside in the cold or warm indoors – there are people drinking.

We meet one group of lads, 12 of them, sitting in darkness by the edge of a river at 8 o’clock on a Friday night. Crates of lager and supermarket bags are strewn everywhere.

“We’re here at the weekends,” says 18-year-old Carl who has spilt most of his Stella Artois down his tracksuit top. “We get the drink from the supermarket and we come up here and get smashed.”

This isn’t the city centre of one of the north east’s party destinations – it is the picturesque university city of Durham, where thousands of tourists come each year to admire the 11th Century cathedral and enjoy the bustling shops.

Durham’s Chief Constable, Jon Stoddart, tells Channel 4 News that the problem is far larger than binge-fuelled bad behaviour. His men and women on the beat see a range of alcohol-related crime and social breakdown.

Only last year, his constabulary and two neighbouring forces tackled nearly 6,500 incidents of domestic violence where alcohol played a part.

Stoddart is in no doubt that it is the cut prices and easy availability of alcohol that are to blame.

Booze sold in the off-trade – that’s supermarkets, shops and off-licenses – is now more affordable than it was 20 years ago. A can of lager is cheaper than a bottle of water. Supermarkets are even selling alcohol at a loss.

Money no object
So we’re drinking more and drinking at home, causing damage to ourselves and our society.

Public health experts – including the Health Select Committee, along with the Royal College of Physicians and the government’s own chief medical officer – want to see a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol.

Would that deter Carl and his mates? What would they do if alcohol was more expensive?

“We’d rob it,” says Danny, aged 17, who expertly opens a bottle using only his teeth.

“I’d ask Gordon Brown to put me dole money up,” says 17-year-old Gary, who got locked up last week for fighting while drunk.

The Channel 4 News crew retreats back towards the lighted paths, leaving the lads in the dark. By the end of the evening two of them will have been arrested. Locked in the cells to sober up at significant cost to the taxpayer.

Three miles out of Durham is the former pit village of Bowburn.

In the middle of the estate, opposite an off-licence, we meet Danielle, who is 15. It’s early in the evening but her make-up is smudged and there’s a whiff of vodka and coke on her breath. With a slur of her words and a grin on her face, she tells us she hasn‘t had a drink. Yet. So, what does she do on a normal Friday night?

“We get p***ed,” she screams, prompting a chorus of cackles from her girl friends.

“We get the vodka for £3.69 a bottle and we drink it. We’ll stay out ’til eleven. Actually more like two in the morning. We get it from the off license.”

They sway and wobble as they talk. Dressed in powder pink and baby blue, hair scraped back, walking arm in arm like little girls. Danielle and her friends are at the beginning of their relationship with alcohol.

Under the influence
But while it’s easy to point the finger at these youngsters – they’re bored and irresponsible – the message from those Channel 4 News speaks to is that we are all, to some extent, under the influence of alcohol.

Our report was filmed in the north east because alcohol consumption levels here are among the highest in the country and alcohol-specific hospital admissions are 62 per cent higher than the national average.

But the impacts of cheap alcohol are experienced nationwide and affect all areas of life.

There is the time lost to the economy through absenteeism at work, alcohol-related unemployment, the social care or mental health intervention required when individuals or families break down, and much more.

Then there are better-known effects. Death from chronic liver disease is increasing in both men and women.

Tony Brown founded a charity called Living Sober – he travels around the region, helping recovering alcoholics.

He said alcohol could also destroy whole families. “I have seen lots of families split up. I have seen children who have a mum who is a chronic alcoholic, who doesn’t feed them right, who doesn’t clean up properly.

“But when social services turn up to take the kids away, the kids still want to stay with mam. It is devastating.”

In the north east, Channel 4 News has been told, the bill for alcohol’s cumulative effects adds up to £1bn annually – a staggering £400 annually for every man, woman and child.

And always behind these facts and figures are the lives blighted by alcohol. The damage is done, sometimes, almost without realizing.

Fifty-five-year-old Alan Morrison liked a drink after work. But “a few pints” each night soon turned into an extra bottle of cider on the way home – a bottle that contained around 10 units and cost Alan less than £2. Then he started drinking in the morning.

A few months ago his liver shut down, his body crying out for a break from the booze. His eyes turned yellow with jaundice and his belly bloated with fluid – doctors had to jam a tube into him to siphon off the poison.

Channel 4 News meets him on the specialist liver ward of Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary.

“It only cost £1.99 for a bottle of cider, so I’d have a few drinks before work,” he tells us. “Then I lost my job. The wife gave me an ultimatum and then she left me.”

Cheap alcohol
Mr Morrison’s doctor, liver specialist Dr Chris Record, attributes much of the damage he sees to today’s discounted, heavily promoted, shop-sold alcohol.

“The main problem is the price of alcohol is too cheap. Alcohol sold in supermarkets is now 140 per cent more affordable than it was 20 years ago, that means it is being sold for a third of the price now that it was then.”

That’s why the idea of a minimum price is central to the calls by the Health Select Committee and others for the government to take action. The chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, reckons a minimum unit price of 50p would reduce hospital admissions by 100,000 and save a quarter of the lives currently lost to alcohol-related causes.

The Department of Health has previously refused to back minimum pricing, saying it has “commissioned further research” but believes minimum pricing could be “too simple an answer”.

The public health minister Gillian Merron told Channel 4 News today: “We haven’t ruled out minimum pricing, but we do believe, and the evidence is, that different things speak to different people.

“The jury’s out on minimum pricing. Pricing does have a role to play, but it is only one of the factors.”

Supermarkets continue to pile booze high and sell it cheap.

Whatever action is taken, however, for some the options have already run out.

Liver patient Alan Morrison’s body has recovered enough that he can be discharged. A nephew turns up to help him home.

But he’s been warned: stay off the alcohol or die.