Licensing boards should prevent alcohol culture

CUTTING back on booze culture is essential, says Evelyn Gillan

Supermarkets continuously have deals on alcohol. Picture: PA

Summer barbecues, the cup final, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, New Year, Wimbledon, a good day at work, a bad day at work, the weekend… we’re told by alcohol marketers that there’s always a reason to ‘celebrate’ or ‘commiserate’ with alcohol. Any event (or non-event) is used as an excuse to pour another drink.

Added to this, the big supermarkets are on a constant round of alcohol price promotions. A 70cl bottle of Tesco ‘everyday value’ vodka costs less than a tenner while Asda have a two-litre bottle of cider at just £2. According to Asda’s website, it’s “flying off the shelves”. Alcohol companies want to convince us that booze is an essential part of everyday life. This creates enormous difficulties for people who don’t want to drink at all, those who are trying to cut down, and people recovering from alcohol dependency.

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The musician Midge Ure, who has had problems with alcohol in the past, spoke recently about how the utter ubiquity of alcohol helps to create the alcohol harm that we see all around us. By creating an environment where cheap alcohol is available in supermarkets, corner shops, garages and even motorway service stations, we make it easy for people to develop alcohol problems. If we want to help people to drink less then we need to create more protective environments and provide better safeguards. Licensing boards have a key part to play in creating protective environments because they have the power to control the availability of alcohol in their local area.

Alcohol Focus Scotland recently reviewed the policy statements which every licensing board is required to publish every three years. These statements must promote the five licensing objectives: preventing crime and disorder, preventing public nuisance, securing public safety, protecting and improving public health, and protecting children from harm.

The good news is that we found evidence of good practice in some areas. Glasgow, North Ayrshire, Aberdeen, Dumfries and Galloway, Highland and East Lothian all demonstrated that they had listened to the views of the police, health professionals and local community groups. Ten licensing boards found an overprovision of alcohol outlets in their area – meaning that there is a presumption against granting any new licences for shops or bars.

However, we also found that more licensing boards highlighted the contribution of the licensed trade to the economy and tourism than the adverse health and social consequences of alcohol. In some areas, there was a lack of transparency about how the evidence of alcohol harm presented to licensing boards had been listened to and acted upon. If the police and health professionals have provided evidence of high levels of alcohol-related anti-social behaviour, violence, ambulance call-outs and hospital admissions, the licensing board has the power to take action to minimise this harm. Action can include saying no to new and occasional licences, imposing certain operating conditions like having stewards or CCTV or reducing trading hours. Seventeen licensing boards have extended licensing hours over the last six years with only one board reducing hours of sale.

In Edinburgh, despite the licensing board having identified seven areas of the city as “areas of serious special concern”, the policy appears to have little meaning in practice as the board has granted at least 11 licences since the areas of concern were identified. Objections from members of the public, health professionals and police seem to be falling on deaf ears. The decisions made in council chambers may seem far removed from our everyday lives but they are important decisions which shape our neighbourhoods, our towns and our city centres. The more alcohol that is available in an area, the more likely it is that the people living there will experience the negative consequences, from noise and litter to ill-health and injury.

Licensing boards need to take account of the experiences of the people affected by their policies and decisions, whether that is members of the public or the front-line workers like police, paramedics and doctors who deal with the effects of too much alcohol day in, day out.

We all have a part to play in creating the kind of neighbourhoods and communities that we want to live in. However, licensing boards have a particular responsibility to use their regulatory powers to benefit the public good. They can do this by creating protective environments that control the availability of alcohol which will in turn, minimise the risk of harm to the people and communities that they serve.

Dr Evelyn Gillan is chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland