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 It will be ten years old in a few months time and there is virtually no public demand for it to be repealed.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.


Christopher Snowdon
4 June 2014
The US Food and Drug Administration is considering making a calculation of the pleasure that people get from using e-cigarettes and tobacco products. It has suggested that financial estimates of the...
Christopher Snowdon
13 May 2014
The Economist has put a nice little chart together based on the latest World Health Organisation report on alcohol. It shows alcohol consumption per capita but also per drinker. Contrary to...
Christopher Snowdon
1 May 2014
Much of the moral panic about gambling in recent years has centred on the claim that the number of problem gamblers has "increased by 50% in three years" and that the UK has 450,000...
Christopher Snowdon
24 March 2014
The latest installment of the plain packaging saga is expected to arrive before the end of the month. After the initial public consultation found that two-thirds of those who responded were opposed...
Christopher Snowdon
19 March 2014
Today's budget was another curate's egg from the perspective of lifestyle liberty. The decision to scrap the alcohol duty escalator is very welcome, as is the freezing of spirits and cider...
Christopher Snowdon
18 March 2014
The authors of the report that claims that inequality costs the UK £39 billion a year (see yesterday’s post) say that rates of imprisonment would fall by 37 per cent in a ‘more...
Christopher Snowdon
17 March 2014
On Sunday, the Observer reported that ‘Inequality “costs Britain £39bn a year’. This is based on the belief that ‘a more equal UK would experience less crime and...
Christopher Snowdon
18 February 2014
As reported in The Guardian and elsewhere, the Alcohol Health Alliance has issued a press release in response to the ongoing campaign to bring an end to the alcohol duty escalator which, according to...
Christopher Snowdon
5 February 2014
In June 2012, the IEA published Sock Puppets, a report which looked at the evidence, and implications, of taxpayer funding for the large and growing element of ‘civil society’ that is...
Christopher Snowdon
4 February 2014
The French think tank Institut économique Molinari has recently published a clear and well-referenced report that looks at the false premises and negative consequences associated with sin...
Ryan Bourne
30 January 2014
It’s often said that modern day politicians lack conviction – that is, they are afraid of expressing their firmly held beliefs. This is not universally true, of course. But one of the...
Christopher Snowdon
7 January 2014
Ed Miliband’s pledge to crack down on the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’ is a significant moment in the extraordinary moral panic over fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs). Last...
Christopher Snowdon
14 October 2013
The poorest twenty per cent of households in Britain spend an average of £1,286 per year on ‘sin taxes’, including betting taxes, vehicle excise duty, air passenger duty, ‘...
Christopher Snowdon
4 September 2013
Many 'public health' policies aimed at reducing harmful alcohol use, such as minimum pricing, are underpinned by a belief in the Total Consumption Model. This model—also known as the...
Christopher Snowdon
1 August 2013
In 2010, a piece of research was published by Policy Exchange, a think tank, which managed to lodge one "fact" into the public's consciousness which has persisted every since. Namely,...
Christopher Snowdon
12 July 2013
So it's official. Neither the UK government nor the European Parliament will be legislating to put tobacco in plain packaging. It looks very likely that minimum pricing for alcohol will also be...
e-cigarettes, snus, harm reduction
Christopher Snowdon
11 July 2013
Are free markets incompatible with good health? To hear some of the rhetoric that comes from the medical establishment, you might think so. If the solution to every problem involves banning...
Barrie M. Craven, Michael L. Marlow and Alden F. Shiers
27 June 2013
Excessive alcohol consumption is associated with many deleterious effects on individual health.  Its negative impact on wider society includes crime (including domestic violence), drunk driving...
Christopher Snowdon
12 June 2013
It is brave for a lobby group that has a long track record of using dodgy surveys, junk science and misleading press releases to release a report entitled Stick To The Facts, but that is what state...
Christopher Snowdon
28 May 2013
Plain packaging for tobacco appears to have been rejected by the UK's Coalition government, just as it was rejected by the previous Labour government, but the idea continues to appeal to...

Invest in the IEA. We are the catalyst for changing consensus and influencing public debate.

Donate now

Thank you for
your support

Subscribe to