The NHS vs drinkers

Posted on November 7, 2016

Yesterday, the Mail on Sunday reported that NHS Shetland has put forward proposals to restrict sales of alcohol from shops until 'later afternoon or evening' rather than 10am. It's another daft and illiberal idea from neo-prohibitionists who would really rather we didn't drink at all.


The NHS report says: 'Alcohol has become so embedded in society there's a perception that regular drinking is normal, risk-free and a good way to de-stress, without the recognition that regularly drinking too much increases the risk of cancer, heart disease and mental health problems. This shift to people drinking at home rather than in the pub has been driven by supermarkets selling alcohol at such low prices pubs can't compete.' The report also suggests alcohol should be sold in separate areas in supermarkets and smaller shops should be banned from displaying alcohol behind the counter.


Where to begin with this nonsense? Significant health risks from drinking occur at levels way above what most people consume. (We'll ignore the frankly silly official guidelines which suggest anything more than six glasses of wine per week counts as problem drinking.) The shift to drinking at home is partly because of another nanny state policy - the smoking ban - but also to do with rising property prices and other changes to the pub industry that make the price of drinking down the boozer prohibitively expensive. Why pay through the nose to sit in a pub when you can drink - and smoke- more freely and cheaply at home?


But as with so many other nanny state measures, this one is not just illiberal but would surely be ineffective. If alcohol sales are banned before 5pm, people wanting a daytime tipple will merely stockpile booze. Meanwhile, we can look forward to booze queues forming in the run-up to the magic hour: supermarkets and other shops will be hit with an early evening rush to buy alcohol rather than some people being able to pick up a bottle of wine at lunchtime to consume later. The unworldliness of the idea is that problem drinkers, people who are really serious about getting hold of alcohol, would be prevented by this effective curfew on sales. It will merely inconvenience the majority of non-problem drinkers with no benefit for the hardcore.


And it's no surprise that this proposal comes from Scotland, which seems to be forever in the vanguard of the worst, most illiberal policy-making, from the first smoking bans in the UK (2006) to minimum unit pricing of alcohol (passed in 2012, but held up by a legal challenge). Unable to inspire voters with a vision of a bright and prosperous future, Scottish politicians seem more interested in controlling our 'bad' habits.