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If Alcohol Were Discovered Today, Would it be Legal?

Booze has created a public health crisis of immense proportions.

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Alcohol is not the most addictive drug, but its widespread availability and social acceptability make becoming dependent more likely. This social context also makes relapse after treatment highly likely, as Case Study 3 shows. It can be hard for anyone, let alone an addict, to refuse a drink when it’s offered socially. About a quarter of the adult population of the UK drink more than the recommended weekly limit; 6% of men and 2% of women are “harmful drinkers,” where damage to health is likely, and levels are higher still in Scotland. As with many other drugs, dependent users suffer withdrawal symptoms when they stop. 

5. Alcohol problems can only be solved when all parties work together

The drinks industry wants to portray itself as having the same aims and interests as people who want alcohol policy to be guided by a concern for public health. But there is a fundamental conflict of interest: however much the industry wants to pretend otherwise, you can’t reduce harm without reducing the amount people drink, whereas companies looking to maximize profits need to sell as much alcohol as possible. There is a lot of evidence that the drinks industry relies upon hazardous drinking as a major source of income. In fact, it has been calculated that if everyone who drinks more than the recommended daily limit started drinking moderately there would be a drop in total alcohol consumption of 40% – equivalent to over £13 billion in sales. However much the industry talks about taking the harms seriously, nothing can change the fact that its success is indirectly related to the amount of damage it inflicts on society at large.

This is not to say that the industry brings no benefit to society at all – brewers contribute billions every year in tax revenue, and the industry does provide a lot of jobs. Pubs in particular are important social spaces and local employers, but they’ve seen their profits plummet in recent years as a result of the cut-price alcohol available from supermarkets and off-licences. “Working together” implies that everyone can win, when in fact politicians need to weigh up the different interests involved, and bring in policies that will produce the best outcomes for society as a whole, even if that means that some parties have to lose out.

In practice, what the industry means by “working together” is bringing in voluntary codes rather than statutory regulation – solving problems through rules that the industry chooses to comply with, rather than laws which they must comply with. These are supposed to be easier to implement and more flexible than going down the legal route. However, evidence from across the world shows that the voluntary codes adopted by drinks industries are essentially ineffective at reducing alcohol harms – they tend to focus on the wrong sort of interventions, and are routinely ignored by signatory companies anyway. This was recognized with smoking and the tobacco industry, and is equally true of those who profit from alcohol.

6. Alcohol marketing is not harmful. It is simply intended to assist the consumer in selecting a certain product or brand

The drinks industry spends around £800 million a year on advertising, marketing, sponsorship, contests and special promotions. While the most important factors determining consumption are price and availability, marketing does have a demonstrable impact on levels of drinking, not just the brands people choose to drink.

This is particularly true with young people and a number of studies have concluded that marketing communications do have a marked effect on consumption. A recent British Medical Association (BMA) publication, Under the Influence, revealed many of the techniques the drinks industry employs to target a younger audience, including email campaigns with embedded film clips advertising alcohol, Facebook links and texts going direct to people’s phones.