Friday, June 20, 2008

Showing Bottle?

The Scottish Government's consultation on alcohol seems to have ruffled a few feathers in blogland this week, not least because of the suggestion that off-sales may be restricted to those over the age of 21. For what it’s worth, here’s my tuppence-worth…

Firstly, I think there's much in the Scottish Government’s consultation to welcome. Like many other north European countries, Scotland has a troubled relationship with the bottle. Any proposals which make it harder for under-agers to get access to alcohol, and which help foster a more mature attitude to drink, have to be worth consideration in my book. Hopefully, careful consideration is exactly what they are going to get over the next few months.

While it’s the proposed age restriction for off-sales which has attracted the greatest attention, there’s much, much more to the consultation than this alone. Despite some of the attacks on the Scottish Government from south of the border, there's actually a great deal of overlap with what's being proposed by Whitehall. According to last Wednesday's FT, proposals for a minimum price per unit of alcohol are on the agenda south of the border as well. For those reasons, most of the criticisms I’ve heard to date, particularly in regard to legislative competence, seem rather weak and misplaced to say the least of it.

Now for the ‘but’. I've remarked before that I'm generally uncomfortable with the instinct to ban things whenever a social problem rears its head and I have to admit, preventing 18-21 year-olds from buying alcohol in supermarkets and off-licences is something which ordinarily would chafe with my generally libertarian instincts. However, I freely admit to being in two minds on this one.

Firstly, here’s my ‘leave-things-as-they-are’ argument. The main argument in favour of raising the age for off-sales is to reduce under age drinking. However, under age drinking is already against the law, as is the sale of alcohol to anyone under age. There is already a pretty broad package of measures which can be used to tackle alcohol related problems, including laws which allow for dispersal of crowds and confiscation of alcohol; by-laws which can be introduced to ban outdoor drinking; ASBOs which can restrict behaviour; and the more usual charges of being D&D, or the catch-all breach of the peace. As such, the authorities have substantial powers already to deal with the particular problem being identified. If it’s felt that the problem is not being dealt with vigorously enough under current laws and regulations, then why would tougher legislation necessarily aid matters?

Now, here’s the more nuanced case for change which is gnawing at me. The argument about getting married and going off to fight for your country has been done to death in recent weeks in connection with the votes at 16 debate, an initiative which I support, incidentally. I’ve met 16 year olds who know more about politics than many 60 year olds, but even then, I’m not sure I’d want to see a 16 year old behind the wheel of a car. Ultimately, lines have to be drawn somewhere, and given the different prohibitions we have in society and the different rates at which we mature, it’s not always necessary or desirable in my view for those lines to be consistent.

So how should this apply to drink? Well, in truth, we already have different legal drinking ages in Scotland. For instance, at 16, you can buy alcohol in licensed premises to accompany a meal, but not to drink in a bar. The amount which can be consumed is limited to the duration of the meal. It’s also delivered in a highly regulated and supervised environment, which means it’s not possible to drink as much as it would be in a pub. As a public introduction to civilised consumption of alcohol, it has much in my view to commend it.

At 18, the delights of a pint in the local pub are open to you for the first time, legally at least. Again, this can have a socialising effect on alcohol use, since barstaff, bouncers and other customers generally can be expected to keep amateur topers in some kind of order. According to the existing laws, it’s also illegal to serve someone who is already intoxicated. While that’s often a highly subjective measure, it does at least in theory mean that drinking yourself into a complete stupor isn’t an option.

So, why might we benefit if off-sales were treated differently? Well, let me continue with the ‘socialisation’ argument. A parent might buy alcohol in the full knowledge that an under-ager is going to drink it and while that may be an offence, in the privacy of your own home, there’s little the law is likely to do about it. However, if it’s bought for a group of young people to drink together, that supervision/socialising element is often absent. Under those circumstances, consumption tends to increase and with it, the chance of injury, illness, and anti-social behaviour, particularly when it happens outdoors and in relative seclusion.

Now, I know perfectly well that drink fuelled anti-social behaviour isn’t the sole preserve of the under 21s. When I lived in Portobello, my flat was just a few doors up from a (now closed) pub. It was also just up from the beach and promenade, which was something of a magnet for under 18s, who regularly used to sit down there at night to have a smoke and pass the flagon round.

Given that their tipples of choice seemed to be alcopops, cheap spirits and mixers or white cider, the objective seemed to be to get drunk as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Nonetheless, more often than not, the kids used to clear up the cigarette butts, put their bottles in the bin and then slope off home reasonably quietly. The pub, on the other hand, would spew out nightly a noisy and clearly intoxicated middle-aged clientele, some of whom thought little of kicking over motorbikes, separating cars from their wing mirrors and peeing in doorways on their way back up the street.

With that, I realise I’m in danger of contradicting my argument about the socialising effect of drinking in licensed premises. However, I believe the main point – that young people drink more responsibly when supervised and in suitable locations and that off-licences can be a hindrance to that - remains substantially accurate.

So what difference would it really have made to me between the ages of 18-21? I suppose the bars of Stirling and the Student Union would have got even more of my custom than either Victoria Wine or the campus shop. Kitchen parties in 1st year halls would have more or less become extinct… older students would have bought the booze for house parties or pre-clubbing… I might never have felt the need to sample the epicurean delights of Thunderbird or MD 20/20 before hitting the dancefloor.

All things considered, though, an off-sales restriction probably wouldn’t have made a huge difference to me – I’d just have gone out to different places and probably drunk slightly less when I did. However, what it would have done is made it a good deal harder for me as a young teenager to get a carry-out to take up the golf course, or for a sneaky house party when someone’s parents went out for the night. I also can’t say I’ve ever noticed a shortage of under-21’s in most supposedly over-21 establishments, although the higher age limit does make it harder for the very obvious under-agers to get in.

All of which leads me to suspect that when it comes to off-sales, most 18-21 year olds will probably still find a way to either get served or obtain their carry-out by other means, while most under 18’s will find it that bit harder to do likewise. That, though, means both purchaser and vendor breaking the law, which clearly is not a desirable situation for either party. Even having more lenient penalties for those selling to those under-21 but over 18 would send the wrong signal.

Which leaves me in something of a quandary. Alcohol and its excess consumption, for better or worse (largely worse, I would say), is synonymous in Scotland with adulthood and rights of passage and therefore, is always going to have an added appeal to those denied it by law. The main question for me, which I hope the consultation will help with, is whether increasing the age for off-sales should form part of the approach to tackle problem drinking, or whether, alongside some of the other measures proposed, we should simply better enforce the laws we already have in place.

It's a tough one, and I'm not as certain as I would have been at 18 that I know the answer...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Before changing laws on drinking it might be helpful if somebody could give details on where the current laws stand. I'm sure that there are some laws that allow very young children to booze in some circumstances.

I have some idea that under English law (if not Scottish law) that I am allowed to buy booze for my five year old child (not that I would do so) as long as I supervise him / her drinking it; and that youngsters drinking alcohol in a non restricted public place are not breaking the law if there is an adult (18 yr old) "supervising" them.

I may be wrong, but I am genuinely confused about what is and isn't allowed under current laws.

A clarification of the current ins and outs of drinking laws, would probably make changes to the laws more palatable.