There’s been a lot of talk in the news recently about proposals to tackle the negative impact of excess alcohol consumption by introducing a minimum unit price. Plans to introduce supporting legislation are already in motion in the Scottish Parliament and David Cameron appears keen to introduce a similar system in England.
As it’s the health and emergency services that tend to bare the brunt of the problems that stem from people drinking themselves into a stupor, I dare say that changes aimed at tackling the issue will be welcomed.
To illustrate why binge drinking causes such an issue for us, and by extension for the public who foot the bill, consider these examples to show how alcohol regular impacts on the service we are able to offer-
Example one – An aggressive, drunken male is brought into custody.
As drunks rarely see reason, repeated requests for him to leave a location have been ignored and as such he has had to be forcibly restrained and arrested. Additional officers have to escort him to the cell block and ensure that he is admitted into custody safely. A medical practitioner has to be called to attend the station to assess when the male will be fit to be dealt with and will likely say that he’ll need six or seven hours to sober up. Welfare checks will need to be conducted at regular intervals and should he begin with withdraw from alcohol, officers may be called back to the station to escort him to hospital thereby committing them for several hours.
Example two – A drunken female is the victim of a domestic assault
We attend and an arrest is made. As soon as the prisoner has been allocated a cell we return to the scene with a view to obtaining a statement. As the female is intoxicated we take a short ‘holding statement’ confirming that she would like to pursue a complaint but is too drunk to provide an account at the current time. As such rather than being able to investigate the matter there and then, other officers have to re-attend later to talk to her when sober. A statement may eventually be obtained although its accuracy is likely compromised as she struggles to remember the particulars of the assault. Meanwhile the prisoner occupies a valuable cell space.
Example three – In the early hours of the morning officers encounter a drunken female slumped on the pavement after a night out
Being vulnerable and alone, we have a duty to ensure that the girl makes it home safely. There’s no sign of her friends and she’s barely able to tell us her name, let alone where she lives. What are we able to do? If her condition justifies it an ambulance will be called and she’ll end up taking a place in the queue at A&E. If we are able to get some sense out of her we do our best to reunite her with her friends who can take care of her. Either way officers have been tied up with a problem self-inflicted by drinking too much.
Examples such of these will be familiar to officers across the country and as you can imagine, can pose a significant strain on our resources. Whilst we’re spending time sorting out similar issues, we’re not able to answer the calls for service that urgently need our attention.
Solutions don’t come easily but when people’s lives are at risk – an estimated 200,000 avoidable alcohol related deaths over the next twenty years – we are compelled to find an answer.
In my view minimum pricing is certainly a step in the right direction. I’ll not name the brands but most of the problem drinkers we encounter are found necking the same products, favoured for their balance between bargain price and high alcoholic content.
The strategy is far from an elixir though and if we are to be successful in saving the legion of those at risk from excessive alcohol consumption, I can see that the following considerations will be equally as important -
- Good support network to address alcoholism and its causes – Pricing alcohol so that it is outside people’s ability to binge on it should help but why do people want to binge in the first place? We already have charities such as Addaction working inside our cell blocks, and where drinkers accept that they have an issue and genuinely want to change, success can be achieved with dedicated counseling and medical support.*
- Responsible retailing – The Licensing Act provides a good framework for the sale of alcohol and gives us power to deal with issues arising from problem selling. Traders – particularly off licences – have an important role to play as they stand at the very source of the problem and more confidence in turning away problem customers may help.
- Tackling our drinking culture - The big issue and one to which there’s no ready answer – why is it that in the UK drinking to excess is seen to be synonymous with having a good time? Why can alcohol be sold cheaply on the Continent and not attract problems on the scale that we see here?
With the cost of alcohol related crime estimated at around £15 billion a year, the total spend including health care and loss of productivity perhaps being as high as £25 billion and when there’s such an economic need to make savings, both the financial and human costs of the issue have to be addressed conclusively. To put these figures into context, we spent around £5 billion on policing last year.
Minimum pricing will hopefully help, no one’s saying it will solve the problem alone, however with such a crippling expense any step towards tackling alcohol abuse is a step in the right direction.
*On the subject of support charities, I was recently doing a cell watch on a prisoner who told me he drinks thirty pints of beer a day. He also told me that he had voluntarily submitted himself to an alcohol clinic and was slowly seeing improvements – there was light at the end of the tunnel.