Vice Nation: Alcohol III – Booze & Independence

(Title Image: The Telegraph)

The Challenges

Alcohol policy – unless it’s directly to do with public health – is currently non-devolved. Alcohol licensing is explicitly non-devolved in Schedule 7 (12) of the Government of Wales Act 2006, while alcohol taxation is also set to be retained by Westminster post-Silk. Scotland has a wider range of powers.

Despite plans to press ahead with a minimum unit price in Wales via the Public Health Bill (Booze, Bans & Bogs), as far as I can tell the Welsh Government doesn’t have the power to do that. Similar plans were abandoned in England, while – as mentioned in Part I – Scotland’s scheme is tied up in the European courts.

As alcohol straddles health, licensing, professional regulation and criminal justice, you would expect full control over alcohol policy to only come to Wales with a separate legal jurisdiction at the very least (in line with Scotland).

Before determining what policy options would be open to Wales, it’s first worth looking at the challenges  based on information in Part I & Part II.


  • High rates of under-age drinking.
  • High rates of excessive drinking (and all the health problems that causes).
  • Poor drinking habits – Welsh society, by and large, drinks too much at the wrong times, and there are still problems relating to alcohol-related injuries.
  • Alcohol makes a valuable contribution to the night-time economy and hospitality sectors, so policies will have to balance this reality with public health concerns.
  • Reducing alcohol-related violence and the stress it puts on the Welsh NHS and police.

Changing our relationship with alcohol

Most countries tend to take one of four policy approaches:1. Prohibitory Drinking alcohol is outright banned and/or heavily restricted to the point of being difficult to obtain and use. This approach is usually confined to Muslim nations because alcohol’s banned for religious reasons. The United States famously banned alcohol between 1920-1933; some communities in the US remain “dry” to this day.It’s worth noting that Wales used to be a stronghold of the temperance movement. Alcohol sales were banned on Sundays between 1881 and 1961 through the Sunday Closing (Wales) Act– one of the first pieces of Wales-only legislation since annexation. This wouldn’t be practical in modern day Wales.

2. Economic Restrictions Alcohol is highly-priced to prevent over-consumption. This is the approach taken in the Nordic countries (and to a lesser extent the UK too). Taxes and prices have come down in Denmark, Sweden and Finland since restrictions on imports were lifted (probably due to EU membership); but in Norway and Iceland, you can still expect to pay between £5-8 for less than a pint of average strength beer in a bar or restaurant. In all of these countries (and parts of the United States too) there are heavy restrictions on off-license purchases. Sales are controlled by state-owned monopolies with early closing hours, as well as restrictions on the strength of alcohol sold in supermarkets. Minimum price per unit is a soft form of this.

3. Licensing/Legal RestrictionsAlcohol is heavily-restricted (to varying degrees) to prevent access. This can vary in levels of severity; legal restrictions on alcohol in the United States, for example, are generally stricter than European countries (higher drinking age, harsher penalties for alcohol-related crime). Although this approach makes logical sense as it’s the easiest to enforce without harming businesses, it can be unclear – as is the case in the UK currently where decades of new alcohol-related legislation and regulations have created a legislative mess.

4. Liberal – This is common in cultures where alcohol has been fully ingrained into society. Some key features include lower drinking ages, a lack minimum pricing and liberalised licence regimes etc. Examples include Germany, France, Mediterranean countries generally and Japan. None of this prevents these countries retaining strict laws on things like drink-driving or other alcohol-related crimes.

Which approach suits Wales will vary depends on your personal beliefs or those of your party.

I doubt any party would support prohibition because that would be electoral suicide – so that’s out.

Welsh Labour, with their usual socialist paternalism, would probably pursue stricter economic and licensing restrictions if they could.

It’s hard to tell where Plaid Cymru stand on this, but considering their admiration for the Nordic approach, and their stance on things like sugary drinks (Dr Plaid’s NHS Treatment Plan), you would expect them to support either higher alcohol taxes or heavier restrictions on supermarket sales, advertising and cheap alcohol deals.

The Greens have the clearest policies. They support a ban on alcohol advertising (DU401), higher taxes on alcohol and profits of alcohol companies (DU402, EC775-777), serving alcohol in smaller measures (DU403) harsher drink-driving laws (DU404) and support for “community pubs” to provide a good environment to drink alcohol.

You only have to take one look at Nigel Farage to determine what UKIP think. They oppose minimum pricing for alcohol and (supposedly) want to stop welfare claimants buying alcohol.

I doubt the Conservatives or Lib Dems would really change much about the current restrictions, and you could even see some of them argue for a reduction in alcohol duties to protect pubs. Yet at the same time, they might argue for more populist things like charging drunks to receive hospital treatment (that would be right up the Tories’ street).

Alcohol as Fuel

Wales wouldn’t only have control over alcohol policy with independence, but control over fuel regulations (except in areas controlled by the EU). In my opinion, hydrogen is the best long-term substitute for petrol – I’ll probably cover that another time – but there are specific technical concerns which have hindered hydrogen’s progress, namely storage as it’s extremely flammable.

So what about bio-ethanol? As mentioned in Part II, Aberystwyth University are researching the use of certain grasses to produce ethanol fuel. I don’t know whether government science and agricultural policy should prioritise this type of research or not, it’ll depend on the business case.

Most fuel companies now put a percentage of ethanol in their unleaded petrol – E10 fuel, for example, is 10% ethanol. When it was introduced to the UK, there were howls of outrage from the press about it possibly damaging engines that aren’t built to cope with mixed-fuels – which has an element of truth.

Policy here is likely to be led a a European level. At a Welsh level, the global debate over whether car manufacturers need to develop “flexi fuel” engines may, in the medium term, provide a boost for Welsh manufacturing seeing as we host two major engine plants and a strong automotive supply chain.

Age Restrictions

There are a few choices regarding legal purchase and drinking age.

  • No change. Maintain the current blanket 18 age limit to buy spirits or alcohol to be consumed on its own, with much lower age limits for drinking in private.
  • 16 drinking age(Luxembourg, Asturias, Georgia) – As above, but with the legal drinking age lowered to 16 from 18.
  • Teutonic (Germany, Austria, Denmark). Keep the 18 age limit for distilled alcohol (spirits), introduce a 16 age limit for non-distilled alcohol (beer, wine, ciders) and a 14 age limit for drinking non-distilled alcohol under parental supervision.
  • No minimum purchase age. No country in the world does this as far as I know, though many have no minimum drinking age.

The goal here should be to change attitudes towards drinking, and instill from an early age that alcohol should accompany, not be the sole reason for, social activities.Because of the damage alcohol does to an adolescent body, there’s no reason to scrap the current 18 age limit to purchase alcohol by itself.

But there is a case to lower the purchase age to 14-16 for non-distilled alcohol (beer, wine, cider) when bought at the same time as a cooked meal – not in schools and colleges, obviously – similar to laws in Germany.
This could boost the restaurant and pub trade, teaching young people to have a healthier relationship with alcohol from a reasonable age – not too old so the message is lost, but not too young either. It would also (hopefully) make those who would bend the rules stand out more if this came alongside stricter guidelines on compulsory age checks.

Likewise, rules on drinking in private should be strengthened, perhaps with a rise in the private drinking age from 5 to 14 (with exceptions for religious and medicinal alcohols) alongside harsher penalties for adults, including parents, who give under-18s free access to strong alcohol.

Alcohol Licensing

I doubt anyone has any real issues with the current licensing system. There might be an argument for merging premises and club licences in order to reduce bureaucracy, and subsequently charge qualifying members’ clubs at the lower end of the tariff.

One area we could probably look at is suspending licences – whether personal or premises – for those outlets that consistently breach alcohol sale rules (i.e. selling to the under-aged). At the moment, local authorities and courts can suspend licences for up to three months or revoke them, so it might be worth giving councils greater discretion on the length of time they can suspend a licence, or even ban establishments from selling certain drinks, depending on the severity of the offence.

I’m not in favour of the next bit personally (Cardiff’s illiberal approach to alcohol licensing), but you could also give local authorities formal power to control the number of alcohol licences granted in a specific area (“saturation zones”)to prevent over-proliferation of bars, clubs and pubs. This would encourage a more varied nightlife. Then there’s an argument as to whether we should scrap 24-hour licensing if it’s proven to have had a negligible, or negative, effect on alcohol-related crime and injuries.

Consideration could be given to a ban on off-premises alcohol advertising and sponsorship, as is the policy in France, Russia, India and Norway. There are already EU directives on how alcohol can be portrayed, but banning advertising completely would be a step further and might be open to us post-Brexit. Alcohol advertising is already post-watershed (after 9pm) and can’t be shown during programmes aimed at children and young adults – presumably Wales would continue that policy.

Alcohol Taxes

Taxes and minimum prices are a good way to control alcohol consumption, but massive hikes in alcohol taxes are likely to be extremely unpopular.

If Wales were to follow the Nordic example (Norway, Iceland, Finland etc), you would expect alcohol duties to rise to between six and ten times what they are currently. That would mean the cost of the average pint, which in the UK was ~£3.31 in September 2014, would rise to between £6.10 and £7.93! I doubt even the most paternalistic AMs would want that, considering their reputation when it comes to drinking.

It would, without a shadow of a doubt, reduce alcohol consumption. That means a straightforward alcohol duty hike wouldn’t raise significant funds for the Welsh Treasury. However, any significant fall in alcohol-related health and social problems, resulting from reduced consumption, would mean wider savings to police and health services.

It would be best to keep current alcohol duties roughly where they are now, changing them on a budget-by-budget basis– as currently happens in the UK. That means Wales would continue to raise around £450million a year in alcohol duties.

If this were accompanied with a lowering of the purchase age (in line with what I suggested above), then it may bring in more money in terms of employee and employer taxes if the hospitality trade was boosted.

Based on figures in an Oxford Economics report (pdf p12), which say the hospitality industry raised £34billion in taxes in 2010 (Wales ~£1.7billion), a 2% boost to the industry (for argument’s sake, resulting from a lowering in the purchase age) would raise an extra ballpark figure of £34million for the Welsh Treasury.

One option might be to reduce alcohol duty for lower-strength drinks (beer under 4% etc.) and raise it for high-strength drinks. This could encourage breweries and distilleries within Wales to reduce the alcohol content of their products, as well as change the purchasing behaviour of consumers.

Alcohol & Health

There are two approaches to this: preventative and the draconian.

Preventative Measures

Alcohol should be properly covered in Personal & Social Education (PSE) syllabuses, possibly science and home economics too. At what age would be up for debate, as children will come into contact with alcohol at a relatively young age. A lower purchase age with meals would be part of this, I suppose.

Early intervention – encourage GPs, social workers, housing associations and other organisations (like the police) that come into contact with the public to look out for early signs of alcoholism and refer people to relevant alcohol abuse services (third sector or state).

Public information campaigns targeting groups vulnerable to excessive drinking, which includes students, professionals and (in increasing numbers) girls in particular. This could include cigarette-style warnings on alcohol packaging.

We should investigate whether adult liver transplants can be carried out in Wales as there’s no centre based in Wales or south west England.

Draconian Measures

Open a debate on whether patients should be charged for health care costs relating to excessive drinking. It has some measure of support – a Sky News poll says up to 70% of the public would back the idea. But it raises many questions, like : should all “self-inflicted” health care (i.e injuries caused by exercise, smoking, playing, poor lifestyles) result in a charge? How much should the charge be? Based on the figures from the 2011 report (doc), each A&E admission costs around £100.  It would also inevitably conflict with a “free at the point of use” NHS.

Ban people who are visibly drunk and who don’t have life-threatening injuries from A&E departments, or treat them in separate “drunk tanks”. This might have even more support than the above, and has support from the Royal College of Nursing. The problem is something that appears to be non-life threatening may end up becoming life threatening – especially hidden or internal injuries.

Specific criminal offences for assaulting emergency service personnel – in particular paramedics and medical staff. Scotland passed a law in 2006 which makes the penalty for assaulting a police officer, fire-fighter or paramedic punishable by a fine of up to £5,000 or a 9 month prison sentence.

Greater use of existing police powers to issue on-the-spot fines (£50-80) for nuisance drunken behaviour – as happens in Germany. Anyone who has to sober up in a police cell or hospital bed should be issued with a fine.

A ban on alcohol discounts (i.e. two for ones, free drinks at public events). This might be easier to implement than any of the above, but could prove unpopular with the public and could be difficult to enforce in some respects (especially within bars and clubs if authorities aren’t on hand to police it).

Following on from Part II, it might be worth considering whether to make drinking during pregnancy, which leads to foetal alcohol syndrome, a criminal offence.

Alcohol-related Crime

Ideally, moves would be made to discourage the excessive drinking which leads to alcohol-related crime in the first place. Unfortunately, that’s not always going to work, so an independent Wales will need options on how to deal with it.

The main way to deal with this is prevention, and that means changing attitudes towards alcohol and drinking behaviour – with some ideas listed above.

I doubt there’s any real need to change the current laws with regard assaults carried out under the influence of alcohol – with criminal offences ranging from affray to GBH – as the law is quite clear.

Intoxication is sometimes, but not always, considered a valid defence by diminished responsibility because it affects mens rea (“criminal intent”) – in essence, you can be so drunk to not even realise you were willingly committing a crime.

One change would be to make “voluntary intoxication” an aggravating factor in sentencing. That would have the opposite affect and make punishments more severe in a Magistrate’s Court as a form of negligence as opposed to the most serious aggravating factor of “knowing/direct intent”.

One area of law where this is especially important is sexual assaults and rape.

Intoxication complicates sexual assault and rape trials because it’s sometimes unclear if consent had been granted by the victim, especially in cases where both the victims and the defendants are drunk. One thing to do here would be to place the burden of proof on how the victim gave consent on the defendant to minimise “victim-blaming”. This would be controversial – something being considered by New Zealand’s Labor Party and the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service, but at the same time overturned in Washington State.

According to Home Office statistics, the vast majority (Table 4.25) of men and women (66%) believe drunk victims are neither wholly or partly responsible for a rape or sexual assault. However, around 6% of people believe drunkenness makes a victim completely responsible (Table 4.26) and, sadly, this rises to 11% for 16-19 year olds.

The easiest thing to do would be to blitz at-risk groups (both for committing and being victims of rape) with personal safety information and a simple message – “If you’re drunk, don’t have sex”. There’s a romantic notion amongst some organisations that nightlife can be made safe when it never has been. It’s not ridiculous to suggest that heeding personal safety information and being aware of one’s surrounding is an important part of keeping women safe from sexual predators.

With regard drink-driving, there are three broad policy options.

  • Maintain the current drink-driving limit. You can argue the current drink-drive limit is too high compared to the European average.
  • Lower it in line with Scotland, Republic of Ireland and the rest of mainland Europe(50ml per 100mg of breath). Based on the 2013 figures mentioned in Part I, if the rate of drink-driving  remained the same, you would expect around an extra 2,200 drivers to fail drink-drive tests each year.
  • Introduce a zero drink-drive limit,where drivers who test positive for alcohol but don’t exceed the current (or lowered) drink-drive limit get an on the spot £100 fine and 3 licence points (in line with other motoring offences). They wouldn’t get a criminal record and would have right to appeal, but if this happens a certain number of times in a set period they get a driving ban.

It might also be worth considering whether to make causing an accident whilst being over the limit as a pedestrian or cyclist a specific offence (I’m not sure if it is or not).

I would prefer a zero drink-drive limit, but I suspect public support would only stretch as far as a lowered drink-drive limit in line with Scotland.