Nation o' Drinkers: Scotland Tries to Curb Alcohol Abuse
There’s little affection in a “Glasgow kiss”. Typically preceded by some variation on the growled question “Whit ya [expletive deleted] lookin’ at?” the term refers to a vicious headbutt, as delivered all too often in the bars and on the streets of Scotland’s largest city. Alcohol-fueled violence and binge drinking are endemic across Britain, but the phenomenon is especially acute north of the border — and it’s getting worse. That’s why Scottish ministers this week announced radical plans to curb excess drinking.
“The scale of Scotland’s alcohol misuse problem is shocking,” said Nicola Sturgeon, Health Secretary to Scotland’s devolved government. And shockingly expensive, costing Scotland $3.2 billion a year in lost productivity and additional expenditure for health services, the police and other public sector institutions. Scots are the world’s eighth-heaviest drinkers, and the casual visitor to the city could easily conclude that they top the league in public, Bacchanalian drunkenness. (View images of the gentle art of Scottish whisky making)
The cost of Scotland’s alcohol problem is not only to the public purse — the Scots have the highest rate for cirrhosis of the liver in Europe, and one of the worst alcohol-related death rates. Rising murder and crime figures are also linked to drink. A study conducted for the Scottish Prison Service between 1979 and 2007 and published this year discovered that alcohol use had soared, with 79.6% of the young inmates surveyed in the final year claiming alcohol as a contributing factor in their offenses, compared to 47.9% in 1979. Respondents reporting that they had been drunk every day before their incarceration rose to 40.1% of those surveyed, up from 7.3% in the same period.
Everyone agrees these are terrible statistics, but that hasn’t stopped Scottish politicians and other interested parties from bickering like pub drunks over the best way to change the country’s dangerous drinking culture. The government, a minority Scottish National Party administration, has found ways to introduce new measures by adapting existing legislation rather than seeking the support of opposition parties for new laws. Key points of the new strategy include the introduction of a minimum unit price of alcohol to stop strong drink being sold cheaply, along with bans on cut-price promotions favored by supermarkets. Local police chiefs are being handed the powers to request that local licensing boards raise the legal drinking age to 21.
Critics of the changes say that if different areas have different drinking ages, younger drinkers will simply travel to buy drink. They also say that the minimum unit price will push up the price of Scotland’s national tipple, whisky, which has an alcohol content of 40% or above, but could potentially even reduce the price of the drinks favored by binge-drinking youngsters, so-called alco-pops and Buckfast, a caffeine-infused “tonic” wine made by Benedictine monks in southwestern England.
Buckfast — also known in Scotland as “Buckie,” “Beat the Wife,” “Wreck the Hoose Juice,” and “a bottle of [expletive deleted] ya lookin’ at” (see earlier description of a Glasgow kiss) — has an alcohol content of 15%. The survey of young offenders found that of those who could remember what they’d been drinking before committing the crime that put them behind bars, 43.4% answered Buckfast. Indeed, the beverage is so frequently associated with disorder that there have been calls to ban it. But opponents of such an idea say the only effective way to tackle Scotland’s drink problem is to target its underlying causes.
That’s not as straightforward as it sounds. Habits are influenced by economics — poorer Scots drink more — and the country’s bracing northern climate. Northern peoples tend to drink without food, says Paul Waterson, chief executive of the Scottish Licence Trade Association, which represents pubs, hotels, clubs and other licensees. “Sticking some tables and chairs outside a Scottish pub doesn’t mean you’ll get European drinking.” He supports the government’s new initiative but adds “You can’t change a culture by law.” That’s a sobering thought indeed for Scottish legislators.