Healthy Alcohol Marketplace Balancing public safety and business needs

A History Lesson from the UK

Headlines read: “Health warning after boozy New Year celebrations sparks rise in ambulance calls.” “Shameful scenes of booze-fuelled New Year’s chaos in cities across Britain.” And, these are just two of the many headlines documenting the UK’s continuing alcohol crisis. Photos showed young women in scanty clothing, and young people passed out on the streets.

But, Britain should know better. It has happened before – several times. And, each time, the pattern involved loosening regulations to promote business, followed by out-of-control drinking, followed by government attempts over many years to re-gain control.

The Gin Craze: In the 1700s, laws were changed to help the gin industry and increase gin consumption. The tax was decreased, which made it an attractive product versus beer. Consumption quickly rose and huge problems ensued. For almost a decade, Brits tried to get the problem under control, mostly via major tax hikes. The high taxes were initially ignored, but eventually a balanced tax and campaign against spirits took hold. But it took over 100 years.

World Wars: When the First World War commenced, drinking was again very heavy and England realized it could lose more people to alcohol than to the war. At that point, the government instituted tight controls over drinking hours and places, and encouraged people to drink a weak beer product. These strategies worked well – so well that they were retained and loosened somewhat. During the Second World War, tight control was again instituted and mostly retained after the war.

The slippery slope of deregulation: But in the 1960s, when memories began to fade, things changed. As the British Medical Association Board of Science noted, “Since the Second World War, there has been considerable deregulation and liberalization of alcohol control policies in the UK. This has been accompanied by an increase in consumption levels and alcohol-related problems . . .” Alcohol was allowed to be sold in grocery stores in the 1960s; bar and pub closing hours were extended, as were Sunday sales. After 2003, 24-hour sales were allowed. Drinking laws for youth were very weak and there was little enforcement.   Large increases in alcohol disease and hospitalization occurred.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense

The UK has been engaged in numerous attempts to quell the problems. Some of these attempts may eventually work, but a mere review of their history could have told them that when you loosen regulations, problems ensue. It’s a good lesson for the United States, where in many places alcohol regulation is under threat. We have a good regulatory system that meets World Health Organization criteria to a great extent. Do we really want to throw that all away in order to make a few more bucks?