Britain has always had an erratic relationship with alcohol. Sometimes we make it too expensive to enjoy. At other times, the authorities are accused of permitting widespread alcohol abuse by allowing it to become too cheap. We are in the throes of such a debate today. In 2012 the Coalition pledged to increase the minimum unit price of alcohol but abandoned the policy when David Cameron declared there was insufficient evidence to prove it would reduce excessive drinking. In last month’s budget the Chancellor cut the price of beer and froze the duty on spirits.
Many researchers disagree with this policy. A Sheffield University report recently suggested minimum pricing for alcohol would lead to 860 fewer deaths a year and 29,900 fewer hospital admissions among heavy drinkers while moderate drinkers would barely be affected — that evening glass of Chablis would be safe.
History would seem to be on their side. A new exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians in London, This Bewitching Poison (until June 27), examines the use of wine and beer as medicines in Britain; the 18th-century gin craze; and Guinness’s “doctor-recommended” advertisements of the 20th century. The implication is that increased alcohol prices have been helpful in the past.
In 1688, William of Orange arrived in Britain and brought with him the Dutch love of gin. At the same time, there were several excellent grain harvests and English gin production soared. Gin shops and stalls sprang up and widespread inebriation ensued. William Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane (1751), in which a drunken mother lets her child fall to its death against a background of debauchery and squalor, encapsulated public worries about alcohol. It still has the power to shock.
In 1725, Dr John Friend presented a petition to parliament criticising “the fatal effects of the frequent use of several sorts of distilled spirituous liquors”. The Gin Act, passed in 1751, raised the price of the spirit substantially. Gin consumption halved and the panic subsided. Another Hogarth engraving, Beer Street (1751), celebrates the virtues of the milder drink. By consuming beer, people were refreshed and happy and society was safer. (These were the days before Stella Artois.)
Hogarth was exaggerating, but there clearly is a need to put some cap on the price of strong drink. Cameron needs to tackle the availability of high-proof alcohol for next to nothing.
At the same time, we also need to evaluate our attitudes to drink. One of the exhibits in The Bewitching Poison is a Premier League replica shirt emblazoned with the Carlsberg logo. The shirt is sized for a ten-year-old child. It is not just the price of alcohol that bedevils us, but its beguiling image.