Argus title : Alcohol is destroying society. Will Brown dare do anything about it?
This has been an extraordinary few weeks.
There have been floods so severe that thousands of people have been displaced, not just from small villages and towns, but from one of our largest Northern cities.
Bungled terrorist attacks have taken place in London and Glasgow, associated with a gruesome and widely-publicised attempt at self-immolation.
The government of Tony Blair has finally come to an end and Gordon Brown has taken his place. He has re-introduced cabinet government and has announced far-reaching constitutional changes designed to limit the power of the prime minister relative to that of parliament.
Since any one of these events on its own could have been expected to dominate the headlines, it is perhaps understandable that some news items have received less attention from television commentators and political spokespeople than might otherwise have been the case.
On the other hand, as Jo Moore the former government press officer once famously noted, a time of terrorist outrage can be a wonderful time to “bury” bad news.
A prime example is the shocking incidence of death of, or injury to, teenagers. I was stunned the other day to learn that over a 6 month period, 7 teenagers have died in London, most of them in stabbing incidents. There has been no political outcry, despite the fact that so many of the deaths appear to have been drink or drug-related – and therefore were eminently preventable.
Government indifference was predictable. The Blair government preferred not to admit the true level of alcohol-related violence or to acknowledge that the number of under 18 year olds needing treatment for alcohol-related illness had risen since Labour relaxed the Licensing laws. In fact, successive governments of different political persuasions have been happy to co-operate with a drinks and supermarket industry voracious for profits – and to accept associated tax revenues and party donations with few questions asked.
One recent sacrifice at the altar of industry profits was 18 year old Adam Blackwood from Littlehampton, who was killed on 1st January by a train at an Angmering level crossing. He had spent the day drinking beer and vodka with friends and thought he could beat the trains. The first missed him, the second did not. It was a terrible death, a stupid, tragic waste of a young life.
On the 2nd July another young life ended. Fifteen year old Michael Morgan was stabbed to death during a drinking “party” in a chalet at the Golden Sands Caravan Park on Lancing seafront. A student at King’s Manor Community College in Shoreham, he was with a group of young drinkers.
A neighbour was reported to say “”The party started about 9.00pm on Saturday night and there were kids running in and out. There were lots of under age drinkers but that is a continuous problem. It happened every fortnight, but not to this extent.”
Two days earlier 13 year old Jack Strom almost died from alcohol poisoning and hypothermia after drinking approximately two litres of vodka.
Jack, like Michael Morgan, is a pupil at King’s Manor Community College in Shoreham. He was found in a Southwick park after a passer by reported a drunken child lying on the grass. His friends had covered him with coats, but were too drunk to realize how ill he was. Health personnel told his mother that if his body temperature had fallen by one more degree he would have died.
The Adur District has one of the worst problems of under age drinking in the country. Just over a month ago, a daytime drinking party on Shoreham Beach – reportedly principally organized by pupils at King’s Manor Community College – involved up to 70 children. It resulted in 2 teenage girls being taken to hospital suffering from intoxication. One of the girls collapsed while the other complained of feeling “dizzy.” A boy was taken home by officers after a member of the public found him vomiting in a children’s play area.
Police arrived at the scene to find parents dropping their children off at the beach and handing them alcohol, despite the youngsters being aged 15 and 16 years old. They confiscated three bin liners full of alcohol, including beer, wine and alcopops which had been hidden on the beach.
Inspector James Asser, of Sussex Police, said smaller gatherings of a similar nature had been broken up in the past.
The problem is not confined to West Sussex. Brighton & Hove police recently reported that every Friday night they confiscate about 20 bottles of wine and 20 cans of beer and cider from under-age drinkers.
A survey of 159 young people aged between 16 – 24 in Brighton & Hove revealed that 60 per cent have at least five alcoholic drinks on a typical day and of that 60 per cent, almost half have seven drinks or more. Thirty-eight per cent of respondents admitted to not being able to stop once they had started drinking and 36 percent said their drinking had prevented them doing something that was expected of them. Despite this only ten per cent had been told to cut down or get help.
Brighton & Hove Primary Care Trust’s annual public health report shows that 10% of 14 – 15 year old boys and 5% of girls drank more than 14 units a week. South East Coast Ambulance Service said that between 2003 – 2004 a quarter of alcohol-related incidents in Brighton & Hove involved someone under 18.
This week Chief Inspector Lawrence Hobbs of Sussex Police in Adur told the Argus “More than 200 litres of spirits and beer were seized from young teenagers in the past month. That is a huge amount and worth many hundreds of pounds.”
However, he went on to say that offending supermarkets are being issued with £80 fixed penalties – hardly a great deterrent, when, as one retailer in Eastbourne admitted, alcohol sales amount to 40% of his takings..
A few days ago Somerfield in High Street, Uckfield managed to avoid formal action against the company by agreeing to a voluntary 48 hour ban on alcohol sales, this despite the fact they had been caught selling alcohol to under age children on 3 separate occasions.
A few days earlier, the Tesco Store in Broadwater Street, Worthing was banned for 28 days after staff were caught 3 times supplying alcohol to children.
Jean Irving, the Licensing and public safety manager for Sussex Police said “Nationally 13 under 18 year olds are hospitalized as a result of alcohol abuse every day. Alcohol kills more people a year than cervical cancer, breast cancer and MRSA combined. How many more statistics like this have to be highlighted before retailers become more responsible?”
Ms Irving is absolutely right, but the action taken against retailers is hardly serious enough to provide an effective deterrent. Wealthy, politically influential supermarket chains can easily cope with small fines and temporary loss of income.
Despite widespread flouting of the law, only two retailers in Sussex, one in Eastbourne and another in Worthing, have permanently lost their liquor licences. Both were small retailers rather than supermarket chains.
Alcohol consumption increases when alcohol becomes more accessible. This is why alcohol-related problems in women and young people have increased dramatically since supermarkets – and local food stores with easily intimidated lone employees – won the “right” to sell alcohol. Yet no political party has had the courage to confront this issue, via public education, the national curriculum in schools or by means of limiting supply. On the contrary, the Blair government refused to consider health warnings on alcohol and legalized 24 hour drinking, with disastrous social consequences.
Our consumption of alcohol is already destroying the social fabric of Britain. It is a ticking time-bomb which will result in epidemic levels of infertility, dementia, breast and other cancers, obesity, heart disease and stroke – as well as increased levels of violence, child abuse, rape and murder..
Gordon Brown has signaled that he wants the wellbeing of children and the safety of communities to be at the heart of his agenda. If so, there can be few more urgent problems to address than the damage to our communities of untrammeled access to alcohol.
He risks the fury of the food and drinks industry and ridicule by the media if he seeks to limit consumption – yet if he fails to do so, he will betray us all.
There were many in the Blair administration who reached a comfortable accommodation with supermarkets and the drinks industry.
It remains to be seen whether Gordon Brown will have the courage to face them down.