Opinion: Voluntary alcohol codes are not enough

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster and who sits on various trustee boards

When does providing a service become making money out of people's misery? Sometimes it's an easy judgment to make. Solicitors who advertise their services prominently in spinal units, for instance, may now be welcomed by the NHS - often as corporate sponsors - but they're still ambulance chasers to me. Names change, the principles don't.

Other cases are harder to unravel. The drinks industry has furnished me with the wherewithal for some very pleasant evenings, but it also profits by encouraging us to drink more. Alcohol is an addictive drug and with promotions such as happy hours often aimed at the young, too many get hooked, with consequences that are well-known to many charities: from family breakdown and the injuries caused by drink-driving, to the 40 per cent of violent crimes that are committed under the influence.

As a society we have a big problem with drink. Step out on my local high street in Kilburn, north London, if you doubt it - and not just at midnight on a Saturday. Is this a problem that is likely to be exacerbated by the introduction of European-style open-all-hours licensing laws?

Prohibition, as American history shows us, does not curb alcohol abuse.

Yet is the only alternative, as our government seems to be suggesting, allowing a free-for-all? Surely there's a middle ground where sensible curbs can be maintained by a concerned government to save people from themselves.

At the 11th hour, the minister responsible, Tessa Jowell, under pressure from GPs and the police, seems grudgingly to have backtracked. So the drinks industry will now have to help pay for the costs of policing the extended opening hours, and the fee for a pub licence will go up. These are welcome moves, but they only tackle the consequences of binge drinking. What about the causes? Without taking away from individual culpability, the drinks industry does have a case to answer here, but the government seems unwilling to press it. One of New Labour's most disappointing weaknesses has been its reluctance to confront powerful commercial lobby groups in the broader public interest.

Ms Jowell may be right that 95 per cent of the public would benefit from extended opening hours with no consequences. But even if only 5 per cent are at greater risk, there is an overwhelming case for a serious public health campaign on alcohol abuse, devised with relevant charities, and paid for out of the drinks industry's pocket.

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