Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Drinking, Fast and Slow: an excerpt

I'm on holiday this week so the next four posts will all be excerpts from recent IEA publications. This is from Drinking, Fast and Slow...

Ten years after the Licensing Act was introduced, the evidence suggests that it had neither a strong negative nor strong positive effect on violent crime, alcohol-related health problems, public order or Accident and Emergency admissions. It coincided with a significant decline in per capita alcohol consumption, binge-drinking and violent crime, but it is impossible to tell whether these trends are linked to the Act in any way. A cautious interpretation of the data suggests that the Act may have improved public health and public order somewhat. It certainly did not worsen them.

Licensing is no longer a live political issue. ‘24 hour drinking’ is occasionally resurrected in the press as a threat to public order, but there is little support for repealing the Act and the temperance/public health lobby has shifted its attention to the off-trade where most of the nation’s alcohol is consumed. ‘Given its limited practical effects,’ writes Henry Yeomans in Alcohol and Moral Regulation, ‘the reaction to the new Licensing Act 2003 fits the classic definition of a “moral panic”; a disproportionate reaction prompted by an exaggerated sense of a threat’ (Yeomans 2014: 180). The term ‘moral panic’ can be overused but it is an apt description of what occurred before and immediately after the introduction of the Licensing Act. The prophecies of doom that were mainstream opinion in 2005 now look hysterical and absurd. How can they be explained?

It could be argued that disastrous consequences were averted by factors that could not have been predicted in 2005. By reducing disposable incomes, the economic crisis of 2008 may have led to less demand for pubs and clubs. The reintroduction of the alcohol duty escalator in 2009 also made alcohol less affordable. But whilst these factors may have played a part in reducing alcohol consumption from 2008 onwards, they cannot explain the decline between 2004 and 2007, nor the decline in violent crime and binge-drinking rates that preceded the financial crisis.

It could also be argued that other parts of the Licensing Act successfully tackled problems in the nighttime economy and mitigated the negative impact of extended opening hours. It is true that there was much more to the Licensing Act than extended closing times. Some of its provisions, such as making it easier to close down troublesome pubs, may have helped address public order problems, but these provisions were well-known in 2005 and few of the doom-mongers expressed confidence that they would bring major benefits.

Finally, it could be argued that catastrophic consequences were averted only because pubs did not, in the event, choose to open as late as the critics expected. Certainly, there were unrealistic expectations of how long pubs, bars and clubs would stay open under the new licensing regime. There was never any realistic prospect of widespread ‘24 hour drinking’ even though the Act allowed for it in theory. As of 2010, there were 7,600 premises licensed to sell alcohol at any hour, but most of these were hotels (which had always been able to sell alcohol to guests at any time) and only 13 per cent were pubs, bars and nightclubs (Antoniades and Thompson 2010: 24). Most Licensing Authorities have no pubs, bar or clubs with a 24 hour licence in their area (ibid.: 25).

It is unclear how many pubs actually sell alcohol 24 hours a day, but the number is very small indeed. According to the British Beer and Pub Association: ‘a mere 200 pubs have been granted permission to open for 24 h[ours] and, as the Home Office will confirm, none do’ (Hayward 2009). The Association of Licensed and Multiple Retailers said in 2008 that only two pubs used their 24 hour licence (DCMS 2009: Ev 66). Whatever the exact figure, 24 hour pubs are extremely rare, if they exist at all.

A 2007 survey of 45,000 licensees found that pubs closed, on average, 27 minutes later after the Act was introduced. Registered clubs closed 56 minutes later and nightclubs closed 31 minutes later (Thompson 2009). These modest extensions in business hours are far removed from the ‘24 hour drinking’ caricature and they raise an important question that is rarely asked about the Licensing Act. Why have more pubs not stayed open longer?

In some instances, the answer lies with local councils not issuing licences, but this does not explain why the tens of thousands of pubs which have the relevant permissions do not use them to the full, nor does it explain why the handful of 24 hour licences are rarely, if ever, used. By 2008, four out of five pubs and clubs had a licence to open until at least midnight and yet most still closed at 11pm, even on Saturday night (Hough et al. 2008: 5). Why? The answer, surely, is that there is insufficient demand for round-the-clock drinking. This is not to say that nobody wants to drink at all hours, only that there are not enough customers with this preference to make it worthwhile for a business to cater for them. As one licensee told researchers from the Home Office: ‘We can open till 1am during the week if we wish to. But because the trade is not around, especially midweek, we shut at 11pm’ (Hough et al. 2008: 6).

If there was sufficient demand, more pubs would close in the early hours of the morning every night. Some pubs would be open all night long. Those who feared the worst from the Licensing Act over-estimated the public’s thirst for drink. Their belief in Britons as ignoble savages for whom the law was the only barrier to permanent inebriation led them to assume that demand for alcohol was virtually limitless. This proved to be far from true. It is therefore not good enough to say that the doom-mongers might have been proven correct if more pubs had used their licences to the full. The fact that most pubs still close at 11pm out of choice is proof that their fundamental assumption about the demand for drink was wrong.3

That is not to say that there is no demand for flexible closing times. Clearly there is, particularly at the weekend and on special occasions, and the Licensing Act helped the trade to satisfy it. ‘24 hour hour drinking’ may be a straw man, but the post-2005 change in opening hours has not been trivial. Although pub hours were extended by only 27 minutes a day on average, these extra hours were concentrated in certain pubs (those which chose to close later) and on certain days (primarily at the weekend). An extra 27 minutes per pub represents more than 13 million extra trading hours each year, with many more additional hours in other venues. In nearly all towns and cities - and in many villages - those who want to drink until midnight, and often later, are now able to find at least one pub or bar in which they can do so. Allowing a greater supply of alcohol did not lead to greater demand, but it did allow supply to become more closely aligned with customers’ preferences, as Tony Blair intended. Given the choice, customers generally preferred to drink less, drink later and drink locally.

This poses a challenge to the availability theory of alcohol, which dictates that longer opening hours lead to more drinking, more drunkenness and more alcohol-related harm. This orthodoxy was clearly expressed in Emergency Medicine in 2005: ‘Availability of alcohol is associated with increased use, which is in turn related to increased alcohol related injury and illness’ (Goodacre 2005). This is what was predicted by public health campaigners, senior policeman, judges and the media before the Act was introduced. But we now know that alcohol consumption did not rise. On the contrary, it fell sharply and is now back to the level of the early 1980s. Insofar as ‘binge-drinking’ is a measure of drunkenness, that too has fallen sharply, particularly amongst young people. Alcohol-related mortality has not risen since the Act was introduced, though it had been rising for many years before. Violent crime and late night assaults have continued to decline, albeit sometimes occurring later in the night. The number of alcohol-related traffic accidents has also fallen.

If these findings are ‘counterintuitive’, as one group of researchers described them (Humphreys et al. 2013: 7), it is because of the dominance of availability theory in public health circles. Temperance societies have always believed that ‘the line between order and chaos can be as thin as a few extra hours of drinking time’ (Yeomans 2009: 7) and this belief lingers in the modern public health movement. Availability theory is not without supporting evidence. Prior to the Act’s implementation, temperance and public health campaigners made frequent mention of evidence from Ireland and Australia where a rise in alcohol-related problems had coincided with the liberalisation of licensing laws. But whilst there were studies showing a correlation between availability and alcohol-related problems in some jurisdictions (Popova et al. 2009), there were also studies which found no increase in alcohol-related problems when licensing laws had been relaxed (Vingilis et al. 2005, Fitzgerald and Mulford 1992), including in the UK itself (DeMoira and Duffy 1995, Graham et al. 1998).

The evidence for availability theory was never as solid as its advocates claimed - and they knew it. When the new licensing proposals were first aired in 2001, an editorial in the Journal of Public Health Medicine noted that ‘when opening hours were lengthened in Scotland in 1976 and in England and Wales in 1988, fears that this would lead to a major increase in alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm were not realised’ (Kemm 2001). The experience of England and Wales since 2005 is another blow to availability theory. The World Health Organisation now concedes that ‘There is a lack of clear evidence currently available on the impact of changes to permitted drinking hours on violence, with studies reporting contradictory results’ (WHO 2007: 5).

The more extravagant claims of the Licensing Act’s supporters have also been shown to be ill-founded. Manchester did not become Madrid and Birmingham did not become Bologna. The ‘continental café culture’ never materialised. Given the British weather, that should come as no great surprise, but café culture was always a red herring. It was clear from the start that Tony Blair’s aim was to diversify the night-time economy, allow greater freedom of choice and improve public order. On those criteria, the Licensing Act has been a qualified success. The DCMS Select Committee that reviewed the legislation in 2009  concluded that ‘the major impetus for changes seen in licensed venues appears to have come from consumer choice and market forces. However without the alterations to the licensing regime introduced by the Licensing Act such changes might not have been possible’ (DCMS 2009: 21). By relaxing licensing laws, the government made markets free (or freer) to do what markets are supposed to do: allow people to pursue their preferences. That it did so without aggravating - and possibly alleviating - alcohol-related problems is a welcome bonus.

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