Head to the pub, urges forum boss as new booze law comes into force

MOST of us like a drink, but an article about alcohol is probably not the one you want to read and an article about alcohol licensing? Well, exactly!

But this is something that affects us all: from where and how you can buy your favourite tipple to the costs and charges involved, and the safety of your communities in the Borders.

The fact is that our drinking habits have changed radically, not least as a result of the increased availability of alcohol. Some of you, as I do, will recall the days when you had to go to an off-licence to purchase alcohol – it was a special purchase which entailed a bit of effort.

Nowadays, we can add that bottle of wine or spirits to our shopping trolleys with the same ease that we can buy bread and butter.

Since 1994, off-sales – sale of alcohol in a shop or supermarket to be taken away and drunk elsewhere – has increased by 53 per cent while on-sales – the drink you purchase in a pub or club to consume on the premises – has decreased by 29 per cent.

Two-thirds of the volume of pure alcohol sold in Scotland is now bought through off-sales, predominantly in large supermarkets, supported by cheap prices, which has led to a rise in the consumption of alcohol and a significant change in our drinking culture.

Whereas 30 years ago drinking in Britain was a predominantly pub-centred activity, by 2009 the most common drinking location for all age groups in Scotland, apart from 16-24 year olds, was the home.

The phenomenon of “pre-loading”, the practice of drinking alcohol before going out for a night in pubs and clubs, combines the growing propensity to drink at home with weekend risky drinking in public, and has been blamed for exacerbating the problems of binge drinking and social disorder in town centres.

Drinking at home has become part of the going out ritual. Research into drinking attitudes and behaviour in Scotland found “cost-effectiveness” cited as the principal reason for pre-loading among young people due to the disparity in the price of alcohol bought on and off trade.

Meanwhile, a recent needs assessment of the Borders estimated that there are 4,200 alcohol-dependent individuals in this region alone.

At a conference I attended last week, a speaker advised us that there are more than twice as many substance-dependent people in Scotland than there are members of political parties – not surprising, some of you may say, but nevertheless it is a sobering thought.

However, the licensing system exists because there is a consensus in our society that alcohol has risks and we recognise that, although widely consumed and enjoyed by most of us, it is a substance with known intoxicating, toxic and addictive effects.

The aim of licensing legislation, including the new regulations, is to limit those risks of harm to individuals and society and, to make this work, we need the commitment of licensing boards, councils, other public agencies and, most importantly, the engagement of our communities.

We are not looking to spoil everyone’s fun – quite the opposite. We want the Borders to have a thriving social atmosphere of which alcohol is a part. We want to encourage Borderers to do their drinking on licensed premises in pubs, clubs, restaurants and hotels, instead of in their homes.

For someone who has seen the devastating effects of alochol misuse on young lives to be advocating a pub invasion may seem incongruous, but there are a number of good reasons for it, not least the need to retain these businesses which, in many communities, are important social centres.

In a pub, your drinks are measured (protecting you from drinking more than you are aware of) and although it will cost you more per drink, you will most likely drink less as a consequence.

There is also a duty of care by licensed premises staff, and young people and children will be less exposed to drinking in the home and therefore less likely to copy that behaviour.

There is no doubt a reduction in drunken behaviour in social environments will occur if the habit of “pre-loading” stops.

And, ultimately, of course, we will all be healthier!