Continued from ... Drug Policy Harm Part Three: The Failure to Regulate
Alcohol – A failure of regulation
Having highlighted the scale of the failure of prohibition and the ensuing violence in the case of illegal drugs my argument has been implicitly suggesting that these are problems that could be solved by abandoning the policy of prohibition. Using the example of existing policies applied to alcohol it is possible to highlight that whilst legalisation offers the opportunity of minimising harm, this potential can only be fully realised if the substances are subjected to a regime of control and regulation, driven by public health considerations which resist the pressure of commercial interests. As prohibition in America demonstrated alcohol would cause considerably more harm and generate a massive amount of violence if it was illegal. (Behr 1996) However it still causes considerable harm and generates levels of violence that could be significantly reduced by effective public health led regulation.
New Labour’s policy on alcohol has, since 1997, been driven by the demands of the alcohol industry and is characterised by progressive deregulation and a taxation policy that has led to alcohol becoming progressively more affordable. (Rayner 2006:179-181) The link between availability of alcohol, its consumption and alcohol related harms is clearly established. (Rush et al 1986) Availability can be controlled both by price and restrictions on where and when it can be sold. The 2003 Licensing Act was the culmination of the process of deregulation begun decades earlier. Public health considerations were effectively marginalised; when the 2003 Act was implemented in 2005, alcohol deaths in England and Wales had risen by 20% in the preceding five years. (ONS 2005) It was in line with the New Labour’s government’s commitment to the alcohol industry, summed up by its Better Regulation Task Force’s call for action to remove ‘unnecessary burdens from this important industry and allow it to grow in the modern world’. (Cabinet Office 1998) In an editorial in the Emergency Medical Journal the legislation was described as ‘an act of stupidity’ which, despite being unlikely to have an immediate impact, would contribute to the ‘continuing progression of an already depressing situation.’ (Goodacre 2005:682) But as we saw above when discussing ecstasy, alcohol kills on a scale that dwarfs the fatalities of all illicit drugs. Figure 8 below demonstrates how over the past two decades alcohol deaths have virtually doubled.
|Figure 8 - Alcohol-related death rates by sex, United Kingdom, 1991-2007 |
(Source: National Statistics 2009)
|Figure 9 (Source: The |
that people are using the freedoms but people are not sufficiently using the considerable powers granted by the Act to tackle problems, and that there is a need to rebalance action towards enforcement and crack down on irresponsible behaviour. (Ibid)In support of the Minister’s statement was a body of criminological research. (Hough et al 2008, Newton et al 2008) Hough et al (2008) conclude that there are not ‘any clear signs yet that the abolition of a standard closing time has significantly reduced problems of crime and disorder.’ (Hough et al 2008:1 Emphasis added) This report is unfortunately typical of much Home Office funded criminological research. For example it refers only in passing to the Alcohol Misuse Enforcement Campaign, a Home Office funded operation carried out by 43 police forces following the implementation of this legislation, implying it was an ‘existing … initiative’ and fails to consider the possibility that it potential caused a short term distortion to levels of alcohol related crime. (Norris & Williams 2008:264, Hough et al 2008:4) In looking at information from attendances at Accident and Emergency Departments Hough et al (2008) highlight the research of Sivarajasingam et al (2007) which reported on serious violence recorded by a sample of A&E departments. None of its data is specifically about alcohol and although it makes a number of assertions about the 2003 Act, there is no evidence base to sustain these. Research carried out in hospitals showing significant increases in alcohol related A&E attendances and by ambulance services is also mentioned although its evidence is not adequately explored. (Newton et al 2007) The London ambulance service figures at the time Hough et al (2008:9) completed their report showed during the first ten months following implementation of the Act, alcohol related call outs had increased by 2%. A year later they had increased by 12% and the most recent figures show a 28% increase. (London Ambulance Service 2009) The evidence, particularly from medical sources, suggests that the impact of the Act has been consistent with overall alcohol policy, and is contributing to increased harm and violence.
Regulating the legal harms
Earlier this year Liam Donaldson, the Government’s Chief Medical Advisor recommended a minimum price for a unit of alcohol. His advice was clear
|Figure 10 (Source Donaldson 2009:21)|
It is right for society to bear down on, and deal with, anti-social behaviour that is associated with drinking ... (but) it is also right that we do not want the responsible, sensible majority of moderate drinkers to have to pay more, or suffer, as a result of the excesses of a small minority. (Cited in Independent 2009)Yet again the problem is presented as being about individuals and the evidence of government policy generating harm and violence is ignored. Alcohol policy is more sensitive to the producers, distributors and retailers of the drug than it is to both the Government’s Chief Medical Officer and the substantial body of scientific research supporting his arguments.
Continued ... Drug Policy Harm Part Five: Conclusion (and bibliography)