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Is It Time for a War on Booze? No


Writing in Slate, Reihan Salam calls for higher taxes on alcohol, noting that “alcohol is crazily dangerous, and it needs to be more tightly controlled,” a statement of which I believe neither the first nor the second half.

Reihan continues:

For a nightmare vision of where heavy drinking can lead a society, consider Russia, where the pervasiveness of binge drinking contributes to an epidemic of cardiovascular disease and a death rate from fatal injuries that you’d normally see in wartime. Political economist Nicholas Eberstadt has gone so far as to suggest that drunkenness is a key reason why Russia, a country with universal literacy and a level of educational attainment that is (technically) in the same ballpark as countries like Australia and Sweden, has roughly the same living standards as Ecuador.

Reihan is right that excessive alcohol consumption has been a disaster for Russia, but that is, in no small part, a function of the way that the state has used and abused alcohol both as a method of social control and a source of revenue (as much as 40 percent of the state’s income came from alcohol at certain points in the Czarist era, and as much as 25 percent for certain periods in Soviet times). The pathologies of Imperial Russia and its Soviet successor made matters worse. Confronted by serfdom, Stalin or, even, the chaotic reality of post-Soviet collapse, drunkenness was not an unreasonable response. Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State, by Mark Lawrence Schrad is well worth reading on this topic. For what it’s worth, I reviewed it for NRODT here.

Back to Reihan:

Closer to home, Great Britain has seen a staggering increase in alcohol consumption since the 1990s, much of it among teenagers. Tim Heffernan, writing in the Washington Monthly, has attributed Britain’s binge-drinking crisis to its laissez-faire alcohol market, which has allowed for the vertical integration of the liquor business. America has been shielded from U.K.–style liquor conglomerates by those post-Prohibition regulations that inflate the cost of making, moving, and selling booze, but that’s now changing thanks to big multinationals like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, which are working hand in glove with national retail chains like Costco to make alcohol as cheap and accessible as they can.

Well, let’s look at the position in Great Britain as it really is. While there was indeed a substantial jump in alcohol consumption in the U.K. in the 1990s (and it is true that the country’s town centers are not always the prettiest of places on Friday and Saturday nights), much of the fuss over binge-drinking Britain was a classic moral panic, a great deal of it brought on by the decision to permit extended pub opening hours in England and Wales in 2005 (the Scots had liberalized their rules earlier). Moral panics generally make for bad policy, but, despite the efforts of David Cameron (a man hopelessly susceptible to moral panics and a reliable enthusiast for big-government initiatives, the supposedly “conservative” prime minister wanted to fix a minimum alcohol price, a proposal that fortunately came to nothing) not much was done in response other than the introduction of some worthwhile public-health education initiatives on the problems caused by hitting the bottle too hard.

And the consequences of this inaction?

Here’s the BBC from 2011:

It’s difficult to open a newspaper without reading about the alcohol problems that exist in the UK. Recent headlines include “Binge drinking costs NHS billions”, “Hospitals reel as drink cases soar” and “Alcohol abuse to cost NHS an extra billion”

And this week, figures from Alcohol Concern suggest the number of people being treated in hospital for alcohol misuse has more than doubled in eight years.

But behind these stories is an unexpected truth – Britons have been drinking less and less every year since 2002. Men and women of all ages are slowly curbing their excesses and drinking in moderation, according to the annual survey from the Office for National Statistics, which covers England, Scotland and Wales.

It suggests that heavy drinking is falling, abstinence is rising, and young people are leading the drive towards healthier drinking.The decrease among some groups even pre-dates 2002, with men aged 16-24 drinking 26 units a week on average in 1999 and just 15 units a week in 2009, according to the ONS figures.

 ”There is a received wisdom that we must be drinking more,” says Neil Williams of the British Beer and Pubs Association (BBPA). Its own figures, which are based on sales and not self-reporting, suggest alcohol sales peaked in 2004 and have fallen by 13% since then.

“In reality, we see a fairly deep-rooted decline in alcohol consumption which dates back to 2004. That’s not something you see acknowledged in the media.”

It’s frustrating that the true story is not getting out there, says David Poley, chief executive of the Portman Group, an association of drinks producers in the UK.

“With newspapers, the headline is always the same: ‘Shock rise in binge drinking’. But you look at the figures, and you see alcohol sales are declining…It’s a myth that we need to make alcohol more expensive [to stop people drinking]. These trends are being reversed on their own.”

To be sure, the full BBC report makes clear that not everything in the beer garden is rosy, but the pendulum does appear to be swinging back towards more moderate alcohol consumption (more data here, here, and here).

As so often, society is correcting itself, as it often tends to do when the nanny state keeps out of the way.  


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