Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The economy, not regulation, determines our drinking

I am something of an expert in the regulation of alcohol consumption during the Great War; without false modesty I can think of only two academics whose knowledge I regard as equal to my own. Many hours and days buried in the fonds of the Ministry of Munitions in the PRO at Kew during my masters brought to light some truly original material, much of which still sits in boxes waiting for the day that I have time to register for my doctorate. Anyway, the following is the briefest precis of some pertinent points.

As war production rose so did wages. Skilled men in the factories were 'diluted' with women, whose wages rose from 30/- to around £5 for a 60-hour week. The government feared increased drinking was affecting war production, and under the provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act introduced many measures to control consumption. No nationally effective conditions were imposed, and licensing restrictions were confined to defined areas around munitions plants, with the exception of London, the whole of which was declared a control zone. Pub opening hours were reduced from around 19 1/2 hours a day to 7 or 8. 'Treating' was made illegal, to end the practice of buying rounds. Nationally, the strength of cask beer was reduced to about 3% abv and spirits were reduced from around 50% - 55% abv to their present day strength, the distilleries never having restored previous strength after the war.

And what effect did all this have on alcohol consumption? Practically none. That's not to say there wasn't a fall in consumption during the Great War, for the fall was dramatic, but it was primarily due to 5m men serving in the restricted conditions of the armed forces rather than the DORA legislation. Contemporary accounts prove that pubs and bars were crowded beyond imagination and civilians were drinking like there was no tomorrow - the women as well as the men. As the forces were demobilised, with the restrictions still in place, consumption climbed back to 70% of its 1914 level. That it fell at all from its 1914 level was due primarily to post-war economic conditions; similar significant falls during the great depression from 1929 into the 1930s, and in the austerity years following WWII.

As an aside, Met Police reports of the time reveal that the police were quick to make full use of the new WPCs, another war time innovation; they were sent into pubs undercover as agents provocateur to tempt men into buying them drinks - the 'treating' offence. Either they didn't try very hard, or were insufficiently attractive, for the records show no success in this ploy.

As life expectancy continues to increase, the BMA will find more and more minor factors in our lifestyles that limit our longevity. Alcohol is the latest. In ten years they could find we could all live three months longer if we didn't use sofas, or that a change in toilet seat design could add three weeks to the life of the nation. The factors will become more trivial, and the gains smaller, and no doubt the State will always want to respond with regulatory legislation. And no doubt the reality that external, uncontrollable, factors will have by far the greatest effect on longevity will continue to elude them.


JuliaM said...

"Either they didn't try very hard, or were insufficiently attractive..."

Their descendents are still with us, and in the same jobs...

Weekend Yachtsman said...

Julia - indeed, and still insufficiently attractive!

Raedwald said...

Oh I dunno - I thought the one they used to try to entrap Colin Stagg was quite fanceable. But that may just be my age.

Cooking Lager said...

The gains are great, my friend. I am designing a toilet seat that makes the sitter immortal. It'll be in John Lewis for xmas.

Dr Melvin T Gray said...


Many simply carry on drinking regardless. Those feeling the pinch change purchasing habbits, exploit offers and happy hours or drink more at home. The addicts re-finance, steal it or receive an increase in their government allowance.

Paul said...

I'm having a drink tonight. On medication. What does Alcohol Concern have to say about this?

I feel so utterly miserable reading their pronouncements that I feel I must escape from them by having... ooh, a nice glass of wine or a decent IPA.

I wonder if many of the people at Alcohol Concern are former alcoholics seeking a new addiction?

James said...

Interesting, although the NHS is not sustainable. Alcohol harm is reported to cost the NHS £2.7 billion a year which is not an insignificant amount of money. I dont feel great funding treatment for people who go and smash each other up for A&Es pick up the pieces. There seems to be a good eveidence base (most recently demonstrated by the WHO) that pricing would reduce the burden a bit. But i agree that perhaps this is too interventionist. However money talks, and with an aging population we have to make savings in more than just the NHS.

Mark Wadsworth said...

"... they were sent into pubs undercover as agents provocateur"?

If you're going to do fancy French stuff, that should read " ... they were sent into pubs as undercover agents provocateurs" with an 's' at the end.

Just sayin', is all.

Anonymous said...

It is customary to sneer at doctors who warn about behaviour. But the effect of their establishing that smoking was a factor in lung cancer was remarkable - in spite of the obstruction they received.
Ditto with exercise and health/longevity.Etc Etc.

Don Cox said...

"Alcohol harm is reported to cost the NHS £2.7 billion a year"

The total tax intake from alcohol is £8.2 billion, so drunkenness is self-financing.

Probably A&E departments should have two entrances, marked "Drunk" and "Sober".