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From Kant to the 6 o'clock swill: creative ways to limit alcohol abuse

By Julian Baggini , 21-Oct-2013
Last updated the 21-Oct-2013 at 08:16 GMT

Philosopher Julian Baggini has been commissioned by the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council to give his take on the serious issues affecting the industry. Here, he looks at how alcohol abuse can be tackled by using the brain more than legislative brawn.

Last week: Coke or milk: A philosopher's perspective

Many New Zealanders drink too much. According to the Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand, one in six adults have a potentially hazardous drinking pattern, between 600 and 1,000 people die of alcohol-related causes every year, and half of all serious violent crimes involve the demon drink. 

If it's any consolation, New Zealand is not alone, with an estimated 3.8% of all deaths worldwide attributable to alcohol, along with 4.6% carrying the burden of alcoholism.

What can and should be done about this?

The options would appear to be limited. Ideally, people would learn to drink more responsibly, but public health education programmes in this area do not have a tremendous track record. So that would seem to leave only coercion, of which the two most obvious forms are limiting availability or reducing affordability.

There seems little evidence to suggest there is scope to achieve very much by further limiting availability. Most people binge in pubs and clubs, house parties or in dark corners of public parks. It would require extremely strict restrictions on sales to prevent any of these.

Nor is there good evidence that shorter opening hours reduces consumption. Indeed, decades of "last orders" at 11 o'clock in British pubs probably helped nurture the drink-up, drink-fast mentality that is now so deep rooted. Similarly, New Zealand's 6pm closing time, which was the norm for 50 years from 1917, led not to more responsible drinking but the legendary “six-o’clock swill”.

Keeping booze out of the hands of unsupervised minors is another issue, but all that requires is the proper enforcement of existing laws. More extreme measures, such as one council's proposal to ban on alcohol sales in Auckland supermarkets while children are going to school, just seem barmy.

If the supermarkets are not checking buyers' ages, then kids are going to get hold of drink at some point in the day anyway. The least likely time for them to do it would be when it requires taking six-packs to school, or having them for breakfast, something only the most hardened alcoholic can face.

That then leaves price. Scotland has already gone ahead with a minimum unit price for alcohol, based on quite good evidence that this will reduce consumption. The minimum price is not so high that it puts ordinary beer and wine out of the reach of the low paid. Its main effect is on the super-strength lagers and ciders beloved of teenagers and street-drinkers.

However, such steps are bound to be limited and extending them would penalise the responsible but cash-strapped drinker more than the comfortably off. It would leave a very bitter taste indeed for the middle-classes to be raising their glasses of good wine to toast the end of cheap beer for the unwashed masses. So is there anything else that can be done?

Before answering that, it’s worth remembering the famous principle attributed to the enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, that “ought” implies “can”. In others words, it makes no sense to say something ought to be done unless something can be done.

The most common infringement of this principle is when people insist “something must be done” when none of the options for action will actually make things better.

There is always a whiff of this fallacious thinking in the air when it comes to discussions about the ills of alcohol. Although it is not true that legislators can literally do nothing to help or hinder the social harms caused by alcohol abuse, it is surely also true that nothing could vastly reduce them very quickly. Alcohol plays too ingrained a part in our social lives – especially in those of British descent – for it to be easily turned into an entirely benign force.

Excessive drinking has been part of Anglo-Saxon culture since at least the time of William the Conqueror. The night before the Battle of Hastings, for example, the French troops prayed for victory while the English had a massive booze-up. If we want to become more like Mediterraneans, who drink little but often, it would take generations for the change to be made.

In the meantime, I think there are things we can do to steer things in the right direction without being too paternalistIc. What we need to look at are ways of changing incentives without infringing on people's basic liberty to make their own choices. This is the basis of the "nudge" approach to public policy, as advocated by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler.

Such measures would limit the ways in which purveyors try to get people to drink more, or more quickly, than they otherwise would. So, for example, aggressive price promotions, buy-one-get-one-free offers and happy hours could all be restricted. This doesn't require setting prices or dictating how much people can consume, but it does prevent people with an interest in over-consumption exploiting our weaknesses.

Such measures are really just extensions of the kinds of laws and rules we already have, which few think are too restrictive. For instance, we limit how and where you can advertise alcohol, so you can't put up a billboard for beer outside a school, or claim drinking your brew will make you more sexually attractive.

We insist on labelling drinks so that their alcohol content is clear. Booze is also taxed more heavily than other drinks, partly to disincentivise excess consumption and partly to reflect the extra costs on society of health care and policing that alcohol results in.

We've got used to these restrictions and broadly support them, even though all were to some extent opposed when introduced. There is no reason why we can't have more of the same.

Those who argue otherwise need to ask themselves if they accept that the only options are even more restrictive measures or simply doing nothing. That, I think, is a false dichotomy that provides an excuse not to think harder and more imaginatively than simplistic proposals for price hikes or sales restrictions.

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