Lifestyle Economics Blog

The great '24 hour drinking' panic

Do you remember the great booze scare of 2004-05? Think back, you must recall it. The prophecies of doom about ‘24 hour drinking’ were everywhere. Shortly before the Licensing Act came into effect, the Daily Mail predicted that ‘unbridled hedonism is ... about to unleash, with all the ghastly consequences that will follow’. The Sun told its readers to prepare for the ‘inevitable swarm of drunken youngsters’. Scotland Yard predicted ‘an increase in the number of investigations of drink related crimes, such as rape, assault, homicide and domestic violence’. The Association of Chief Police Officers said ‘people are going to drink more because of the longer hours and there will be lots more crime and disorder’. Prof Ian Gilmore, then at the Royal College of Physicians and now at the Alcohol Health Alliance, said that ’24 hour pub opening will lead to more excess and binge drinking, especially among young people.’ I could go on and on. It is no exaggeration to say that it was the conventional wisdom amongst laymen and experts alike that the Licensing Act was a Bad Thing.  

In reality, what happened? That question is answered in a new paper from the Institute of Economic Affairs published today. The Licensing Act came into force in November 2005. It will be ten years old in a few months time and there is virtually no public demand for it to be repealed. In the decade since it was introduced, alcohol consumption per capita has declined by 17 per cent, consumption in licensed premises has declined by 26 per cent. The proportion of young adults who say they drink frequently has fallen by more than two thirds. Only 1 in 50 young adults now drink alcohol frequently and rates of teetotalism are now higher amongst 16 to 24 year olds than they are amongst pensioners. There’s been a decline in binge drinking amongst 16 to 24 year olds, from 29 per cent to 18 per cent, since 2005. Amongst 25 to 44 year olds it’s fallen from 25 per cent to 19 per cent and there have been smaller declines amongst every other age group.

In terms of crime, since 2005 there’s been a 48 per cent decline in criminal damage, a 9 per cent decline in public order offences, a 44 per cent decline in murder, and a 28 per cent decline in domestic violence. Despite a rapidly growing population, the number of violent crimes has declined by 35 per cent, according to the British Crime Survey, and by 17 per cent, according to police records.

In terms of health, there have been a number of studies looking at what happened to Accident and Emergency departments before and after the Licensing Act. The results are mixed, with one well-publicised study finding an increase in alcohol-related admissions but all the other studies finding either no change rate or a small decline. Meanwhile, alcohol-related mortality, which had been rising for years before the Act came in, started to level off in 2005 and has been essentially flat for the last ten years. There’s also been a decline in late night traffic accidents.

In other words, every single prediction made about the Licensing Act has been proven wrong. With hindsight, it looks like a classic moral panic.

One of the reasons why so many people were pessimistic about longer opening hours is that they believed the old temperance idea - known in public health circles today as ‘availability theory’ - which says that if you allow people to drink longer, they will drink more. It is now clear that this is not what happened in England and Wales after 2005 (Scotland was not affected by the Act). The most notable changes in the market after liberalisation were that people went out later, stayed out later and drank less. This is largely what Tony Blair intended when he pushed the law through. It's true that the Act didn't create a 'continental café culture', as some starry-eyed proponents of liberalisation claimed at the time, but this was always spin. The law was principally aimed at beating the 11 o’clock rush and improving public order while giving people more freedom and diversifying the nighttime economy. On all four counts, it can be considered a qualified success.

In ‘public health’, as in many other battlefields of pressure group politics, there are constant calls for more regulation and less individual choice. Campaigners lobby for more restrictions on freedom with the promise of extravagant and unlikely benefits, whereas the government’s occasional forays into deregulation attract near-hysterical fear-mongering. Most of the time, the panic subsides and people get on with their lives, but it is worth reflecting on the panics of the past to see how they stood up to reality. The Licensing Act is a good example of a government making the country a better place to live by treating people as adults and allowing businesses to meet demand. Not a single one of the predictions made by the Licensing Act’s numerous opponents was confirmed by events. This is worth bearing in mind next time the sirens of doom are sounded.

Christopher Snowdon is the the Director of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA. Download his report 'Drinking, Fast and Slow' here.

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