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Enforcement alone won’t solve underage drinking problem

11/01/2011 00:00:00
​Laws designed to tackle underage drinking are not being used to their maximum effect, according to people working on the front line of the UK’s battle with alcohol misuse.

A new report ‘Lost Orders?: Law Enforcement and Alcohol in England and Wales’ by Dr Fiona Measham, Lancaster University and research consultant Dr Phil Hadfield set out to discover whether laws in the UK relating to the sale and consumption of alcohol were 'fit for purpose' and if they were being effectively enforced.

The study, based on interviews with 32 people working in key sectors from pubs and clubs to magistrates courts and police forces found evidence that some laws were considered impractical and were not being regularly enforced – for example prosecutions against young people for underage drinking were particularly rare. But the research also concluded that enforcement alone would not solve the UK’s drinking problems.

Dr Fiona Measham said: “In relation to certain offences, notably underage drinking, proxy sales and the serving of alcohol to intoxicated persons, our research found a clear propensity amongst enforcement agencies to target the suppliers of alcohol, rather than the consumers.

“In general, our interviewees regarded the prosecution of members of the public for breaches of the Licensing Act 2003 to be too expensive and time consuming to pursue. There was a perception that the courts would not support such prosecutions, or that the fines imposed would be minimal. Also, the commitment of resources required to obtain the necessary evidence for conviction was seen as disproportionately great.”

Dr Phil Hadfield said: “One of the main messages of our findings is that there seems little point in Government introducing new tough sounding measures to tackle alcohol-related harms in the community if these laws are not actually enforced in practice. The rush to introduce new legislation has occurred at the expense of ensuring that the laws we already have are being implemented and effectively used.”

The report concludes that enforcement is necessary, but not sufficient, in that it is unable to address the causes of unlawful or excessive demand for alcohol.

The research suggests that wide ranging local partnerships - made up of agencies from police and primary care trusts to public transport providers and private security industry representatives - could be best placed to minimise harm from alcohol misuse.

Dr Fiona Measham said: “We found enforcement powers alone could only operate as ‘sticking plasters’ to bigger challenges regarding the role of alcohol in British society, which individual agencies could not be expected to address. Shifting the legislative balance away from the current focus on crime and disorder and towards greater inclusion of health priorities was regarded as having clear benefits for partnership working.

“For example, the more progressive agencies had adopted an ‘advise and educate’ approach in their dealings with licensed outlets, the aim being to establish relationships of trust wherein problems with customers could be reported without the fear of reprisals in terms of incidents being used as ammunition with which to Review their licence.

“Our research underlines the importance of allowing space for local innovation, with bespoke initiatives, in order to provide ‘local solutions to local problems’. ”

David Poley, Chief Executive, Portman Group, which commissioned the study, said: "Alcohol producers are serious about tackling alcohol misuse and the Portman Group invests in research to contribute to a wider understanding of alcohol and society.  There are a variety of laws applying to alcohol, for example to stop its sale to children or to those who have had too much to drink.  We wanted to understand whether these existing laws are being enforced and, if not, why not.  The research gives some interesting insights into how local partnerships can be effective in tackling alcohol misuse and how important it is that everyone works together at local level."

Some views from the report

The supermarket manager

The sale of alcohol to under-18s was widely perceived in our sample as being more of an issue in relation to off-sales outlets, particularly smaller community-based grocery and convenience stores. One senior manager from a national supermarket chain suggested that this might be because: “There’s somebody working on their own in a small shop; a group of young people come into the store. They are intimidated by that and they feel that it’s less hassle to sell to them than it is to try and refuse them and risk, risk violence and the grief. Whereas in a supermarket, of course, you’ve got lots of colleagues around you; a whole bank of check out operators and a manager to support you.”

The barman

At a more global level we found major struggles over the definition of drunkenness
and the practical means by which it should be identified, particularly in the context of
British drinking culture in which some degree of intoxication is an accepted norm
amongst many nightlife users. This creates understandable tensions between
public and private sector: “ meetings with the police we have wink wink, nudge nudge conversations about drunkenness because it is slightly absurd you can’t have drunk people in your venue versus the reality that almost everyone goes out to get drunk, so we are into this very weird word ‘drunk’ and what people think it means.” (bar operator, metropolitan)

The Magistrate

A magistrate felt that the police chose containment over enforcement, both to
conserve resources and due to the fear of problems associated with underage
drinking being displaced to other areas: “The police know where things are happening (but) they're unwilling to do anything about it as long as it's reasonably contained. If they know all the under age drinkers are in [pub X] then as long as they’re not going to cause trouble they're reasonably happy. 'Cos they know they'll do it somewhere else and they're probably better in controlled premises than they are drinking on the streets… I think the police are very reluctant to use their powers because it just exhausts all of their resources if they do that.” (metropolitan).

The Police officer

The prosecution of under-18s for purchasing alcohol and investigations as to the
sources of the alcohol consumed by groups subject to DPPO and Dispersal Orders
were reported as not regularly pursued by the police teams dealing with anti-social
behaviour. Thus, the charge that little action was taken against young people –
beyond seizing their alcohol –was acknowledged by interviewees:
“We don't take action against those kids that are drinking the alcohol. It's always the seller that's going to come up for it. Fair dos if that seller’s being blatantly out of order … but … it's the same kids that we're stopping every weekend…We should be taking some sort of punitive action against the children.” (police officer, town)