Sunday, 24 March 2013

As Alcohol consumption falls: Need for a more nuanced understanding. –What does this mean for the Pub?

Recently I wrote that that I felt no matter how influential the public health community became it would always be a secondary consideration for policy makers because of the centrality of alcohol in the UK.  There are now some seismic shifts taking place that suggest this may in time be no longer the case.  The impetus for these changes is largely economic and I suspect the recent public health debate around alcohol is in reality something of a side show.  In retrospect historians may conclude that behaving as they did in the 1990s and early 2000s by promoting cheap alcohol alongside a message that alcohol equated to fun that different facets of the alcohol industry had begun to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.   Policy makers slowly began to perceive that certain aspects of the alcohol culture had become problematic and had to be addressed.

Readers who are familiar with my writings will know that I come from a perspective that public health considerations have to be regarded as equally important as commercial ones.  I make no apologies for this as I feel that the much demonised public sector have been left to mop up the excesses of UK alcohol culture, mainly in the form of the police and medical professions.    The need to reduce the level of alcohol related harm will remain paramount for at least another 20 years but thereafter I suspect the situation may change because slowly alcohol may take a less prominent role in many people’s lives.  I am beginning to question the need for minimum unit pricing as I think there is little doubt that consumption is falling overall.   However I think it is important to understand that this not a uniform across all age groups   

 I will largely confine my comments to the 18-65 age group, though even the most cursory of glances will confirm that much of the spending that drives the UK economy is driven by wealthy pensioners.  Much of this spending is by virtue of generous public  and private sector pension schemes and the historical accident of being able to make obscene profits merely by buying and living in property.  These opportunities will be denied to future generations.

Alcohol consumption for those 40-50 is largely stable.  There are people in this age group who have reduced their drinking but equally this is the group that seem to be most resistant to public health messages.  Many have lived through years of plenty and see little reason to change their behaviour. They have also been the group who have lived through a time when the alcohol industry was able to provide an unequivocal message that alcohol was intrinsic to having fun.  It is not very scientific but my recent experience of a night out may be illustrative.  My wife and I went out to a local restaurant; the majority of people there had more than a little grey hair.  The amount of alcohol being consumed by both genders was very noticeable.  Initially I ordered a bottle of wine and the waitress only bought one glass (for my wife).   Clearly this was something the waitress was used to doing and in fairness there was no embarrassment when I asked for another glass.  However it is indicative of the predominant culture at the restaurant and I saw no reason to think this was exceptional.  I suspect that some had been drinking before going out but that is for another day.  In short this is a group that will continue to sustain the current pub/restaurant model probably for another decade as they have disposable income and are part of a culture where excessive alcohol consumption is the norm.  However I feel it would be dangerous for pubs and restaurants to believe that younger generations will behave in the same way.

I am aware that some of these comments are generalisations and there will be exceptions that prove the rule but they contain more than an element of truth.  There is now a group of adults 30-40 who probably would have been inculcated with the message “alcohol is fun” and I expect would like to behave in the way described in the previous paragraph.  However this is the group who are truly facing the consequences of the money for UK PLC having run out.   Many are on low wages, short-term contracts, high rents and unlike previous generations unable to join the great property owning democracy.   Also there appears to be a marked reluctance to make provision for the future.    I may be wrong but I suspect in time one of the areas of their lives that will become of less importance, because it will be regarded as unaffordable, will be regular trips to the pub or restaurant.

The 18-30 age group present an even greater challenge for publicans and restaurateurs.  Despite what some of media would have us believe alcohol consumption in this group has been on a significant downward trend for a number of years.  Some writers have dubbed this group “The New Puritans.”   This is a bit misleading as they have not stopped drinking but often regard alcohol as less central to a night out than previous generations.  There may be many reasons for this, the distractions are greater- most notably the internet and social networks, money is tight, possibly the behaviours they have witnessed on the part of their elders they now regard as embarrassing rather than fun. 

There is another possibility, -that what is offered by the pub and restaurant may alienate some of this group.  Research now suggests that one of the reasons driving pre-loading is that pubs and restaurants do not provide an atmosphere interviewees regard as conducive to socialising.   It is also noteworthy that whilst pubs have become less appealing to this group drinking coffee and expensive afternoon teas have become increasingly popular.    I am now in mid fifties and I despair at the amount of pubs that have now been converted to gastropubs.   I want a pub to be somewhere I can have a drink without feeling at least a subtle pressure to eat a full priced meal.  This appears to be the dominant commercial model and I suspect there may be an important demographic who are alienated by these developments and importantly they have not been habitual pub users for over 30 years.

I make no apologies for wishing to see alcohol consumption on a downward trend but I think the amount of drinking taking place at home needs to be addressed.  My focus would be on reducing discount offers, and alcohol advertising and promotions but I would like to see the pub thrive.   It strikes me that there is an over-reliance on generations 40+ to sustain the current pub/restaurant model and this is short-termism.  To be brutal, the money will run out and in time this group will die out.  One possible reaction is to regard the current behaviour of young people as a statistical blip and they will in time return to the “alcohol is fun” fold.   They may, but this is a high-risk strategy and I am sure the alcohol industry does not need me to remind them of the importance of hooking them when young.  If this behaviour is maintained it is likely to be long term and possibly cross-generational. 

Thus far much research has focused upon cost as a prime driver of diminishing alcohol consumption.  It is clearly important and I would like to see measures that reduced the price gap between pubs and supermarkets but I also feel it is important for pubs and restaurants to consider that they may now offer a service some young people no longer want and possibly now find alienating.  I suspect if the fall in alcohol consumption in young people continues and is reflected in life-long behaviour then arguments concerning minimum unit pricing will be seen as diverting but of largely symbolic importance compared to wider cultural and economic changes.

PS:  On completion of this blog BBC news announced that it was highly likely that the proposals to introduce minimum unit pricing were likely to be withdrawn.  As I have said above I am less convinced of the need for minimum pricing but what I am now convinced of is the importance of minimising the impact of Big Alcohol on public health policy.  No doubt there is some smug triumphalism taking place in bodies such as the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, to which I say be careful what you wish for-public image is paramount.  This is not the result of a strategic withdrawal but craven capitulation driven by party political manoeuvring and hypocrisy.   Furthermore those sincere protestations from parts of the alcohol industry that do put a high emphasis on behaving responsibly will now have a hollow ring as “Big Alcohol” has been flushed out and shown to be morally bankrupt if it was ever in doubt.   Just one final thought- is “Big Alcohol” really interested in continuing the British pub model if it can sell the product elsewhere?

Dr John Foster is Principal Research Fellow at the University of Greenwich-School of Health and Social Care.