Getting Serious About Addiction and Binge Drinking in the U.K.

Two public figures in the U.K. are showing leadership on reducing the country’s severe drug and alcohol problems. After the election, I wrote some posts about the substance use and policy situation in the U.K., in which many people came in for criticism. I am therefore happy that I have leaders now upon whom I can heap unambiguous praise:

(1) Kate Middleton. I tend not to follow the lives of the royal family, but I have just become a huge fan of HRH The Duchess of Cambridge. She has chosen to become the patron of Action on Addiction, a leading charity in the field. Much as Princess Diana adopted AIDS as a cause and thereby galvanized public sympathy for its victims, The Duchess is doing the same thing for people who struggle with addiction to alcohol and other drugs. Action on Addiction’s CEO, Nick Barton, tells me that the Duchess’ interest in helping addicted people was self-directed: She approached the charity rather than having to be wooed. Nothing anyone in government could have done matches the cultural impact of having a wildly popular member of the royal family regularly bring the realities of addiction and recovery into the public eye. With thanks, this non-Brit says, God Save Her Royal Highness!

(2) David Cameron. A number of us have been banging on for some time about setting a minimum price for alcohol in the UK (For a definition of the policy and a debate among expert commentators, see here. For an update on recent developments, see here). This policy proposal just got the best kind of lift: an endorsement from the Prime Minister.

A minimum price, which is not a tax, would eliminate the extremely low cost beverages that drive binge drinking and associated disorder. In contrast, the average pub goer would not even notice the policy was in place. The Canadian experience, as studied by Dr. Tim Stockwell, has been very positive and the policy team at Number 10 have wisely sought out Tim’s advice.

The economic and social benefit of curtailing binge drinking in the UK would be hard to over-estimate. It costs the NHS alone almost 3 billion quid per year; the total cost mounts up to about 500 pounds per taxpayer per year. Libertarians with integrity (i.e., the noble minority who are more than crypto-shills for corporate interests) point out another cost to Britain’s booze culture which is a countrywide loss of freedom. Many people no longer feel safe in their own communities. They would like to enjoy an evening’s stroll down high street, but have resigned themselves to the fact that the place is a war zone. Likewise, their quality of life is damaged by the vomit, broken bottles and property damage to which they awake on too many a Saturday and Sunday morning. Setting a minimum price for alcohol is an excellent and fair way to reduce binge drinking and also re-allocate its externalities more equitably across the society. This would reduce the suffering of binge drinkers, limit costs to the taxpayer, and maximize the freedom of people nationwide to live and work safely in their communities.