The Market for Sobriety

Today's title is something of a misnomer, as there is no such thing. I was struck today by a good article by Zoe William's in the Guardian about the pending extension of drinking hours to 24x7.

Round-the-clock drinking is not there to suit the timetable of the moderate drinker who wants to stay in and watch Lost but fancies a quick spritzer at midnight and, darn it, can't find a boozer open. It is there to suit the person who's already been out for four hours, and can't bear to go home, which - by the standard definition of a "binge" being more than three drinks in a session - can only be the binge drinker.
A very good point, I thought, however, this is a classic case of demand-driven economics: the drinker (as the consumer or the individual element of the market) wants longer drinking hours and is willing to purchase more, therefore the government is enabling unlimited licensing hours so that the retailer (the pub or club) can sell the consumer more booze. Sounds all very simple really, doesn't it? Actually, it is, as long as you are not in the law enforcement or healthcare industry, two groups who will be smacked accross the teeth with an iron bar with regard to stress on services etc. And of course there is a huge degree of vested interest even there: naturally nobody wants to make their job harder. Its quite normal for a policeman to not want to spend an extra 4 hours a week dealing with drunken fights, vomiting youths or what is so euphemistically called "public disorder" (which actually makes it sound quite civillised).

We learned all about the hazards of extending opening hours the hard way in Ireland in 2000, when opening hours were extended by a mere 1 hour for clubs and up to 2 hours for pubs. Dublin went from being moderately dangerous at night to literally being a jungle. One thing that has not really been stated in Ireland is that the city centres have since been denuded of small, "grown-up" drinking venues where you can have a quiet pint: they've been sucked up by the huge "superpubs" and spewed up massive drinking emporiums complete with their usual collection of loud people roaring at the top of their voices over loud music in crowded and uncomfortable arenas. The smoking ban has taken this outside to disturb the neighbours a bit. (Far from having an honest campaign to discourage people from smoking, the Irish government has instead chosen to make smokers a bit less comfortable. Ironically, its had a strong impact on the up-coming generation of smokers, those in their teens, who've started smoking in much lower numbers and with less enthusiasm).

The big problem is though, that it isn't just a small minority who do this: a huge percentage of people nowadays are binge drinkers. The vast majority of people I work and socialise with have an alcohol tolerance level well above what is considered to be "safe" drinking. Only a small handful seem to respond to small to moderate levels of alcohol in what used to be regarded as normal drunkeness. And high tolerance, as any person with an addiction will tell you, is the first step to addiction. I've seen young women with the ability to metabolise 3 to 5 times what is considered to be "normal." That is why we have such a problem. We are the problem.


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