Business greed is the real drink problem

The great alcohol debate has become appropriately confused, muzzy and pie-eyed. It is as if those discussing the problems of what is described as “binge Britain” have themselves been bingeing for so long on statistics and press releases that they are unable to think straight, or to realise how silly they look. The more they talk, the less they do. The greater the problem, the feebler the solutions that are offered.

Last week, in his annual report on the state of the nation, the chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson drew attention to the various health problems faced by young teenagers in this country. Around 610,000 children aged between 11 and 15 have been drunk in the past month. Binge-drinking among the very young is drastically increasing, particularly in deprived areas: the poorer the child, the more likely he or she is to be on the sauce at a young age.

There were other depressing statistics about obesity and smoking but, in terms of government policy, the challenge that Sir Liam presented in connection to teenage boozers was the most straightforward. The way to cut down on young people destroying their health and their lives by drinking to excess is, for a start, to stop drinks companies and retailers targeting them as a profitable new market.

That, in early 21st century Britain, is unlikely to happen. It suggests the heretical idea that the market is not always right, that the greatest good for a society is not always the one which produces profit and growth.

The rise of harmful drinking among the young is a reflection of capitalism at its most efficient. A market is developing; it is the duty of private enterprise to exploit and expand it. If criticised, a company will have that age-old excuse for exploitation – it is merely responding to public demand.

In the interests of its customers, Tesco, currently responsible for around one-fifth of all alcohol sales, is now “exploring the value end” of wines. This, being translated, means that it will soon be selling wine for £3 a bottle. While it expresses public concern about binge-drinking, it effectively promotes it through price promotions and placement. In my local supermarket, a range of special-offer lagers and ciders with colourful labels is displayed beside computer games.

Against this background, the argument of Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco’s chief executive that anyone criticising supermarkets is attacking its customers and the choices they make is particularly hard to take. When he grandly offers to participate in discussions about the pricing of alcohol with the Prime Minister, he knows he is on safe ground.

The market always wins. Confronted by disappointing annual figures this week, the country’s biggest nightclub operator Luminar also noted the direction of the market. Tired of being undercut by its rivals, it has launched trials cutting the cost of alcoholic drinks by up to 30 per cent. “Business shot through the roof,” its chief executive reported.

The Government would never criticise this approach because it plays the same game itself. This week the Department for Culture, Media and Sport opposed a plan to ban TV commercials for alcohol before the 9pm watershed, quoting the potential loss of £100m in advertising revenue. There was little evidence that advertising affected binge-drinking among the young, it said.

As a result, a report on drink, advertising and health is likely to be more modest in its aims: supermarkets will be prevented from advertising alcohol outside schools. Britain’s true drink problem lies in a spineless refusal in government to stand up to the greed of big business.

Ronnie’s bender rocks

In a mixed week for the mature celebrity, Helen Mirren has proved, to the amazement of many, that a woman over 60 can look desirable in a bikini.

On the other hand, the guitarist Ronnie Wood’s adventure with a 20-year-old Russian waitress, Ekaterina Ivanova, which ended in his seventh stay in a rehab clinic, has been widely portrayed as tragic and undignified.

Is it? The dividing line between the cool and the sad tends to become blurred with age, but surely Ronnie’s bender is rock-star misbehaviour at its best. He is still wild enough to go off the rails, and Ekaterina, with the slightly creepy help of her mother, is now famous. Every-one’s a winner.

* Following his recent election-by-torture triumph, there is more good news for that nice Mr Mugabe. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or Cites, has granted Zimbabwe, with three other southern African countries, the right to sell its stocks of ivory to China, breaching the UN ban imposed in 1989.

It is a bemusing decision for all sorts of reasons. Although the decision relates specifically to stockpiled ivory, any weakening in the general ban will encourage the illegal killing of elephants, estimated by the Environmental Investigation Agency to be running at 20,000 a year.

China, says Britain’s minister for Wildlife, Joan Ruddock, can be trusted to monitor sales of ivory. Presumably, she is aware that no other country in the world conducts such a busy trade in the parts of endangered species. As for the trade in illegal ivory, there have been cases in 20 African nations; in every one of them, Chinese nationals were involved.