Alcohol - Health Committee Contents

Memorandum by Dr James Nicholls (AL 59)



  1.1  This report provides an overview of trends in drinking behaviour from the medieval period to the present, with a focus on the role of policy in shaping consumption. Levels of alcohol consumption have fluctuated over time, declining in the late 18th century, rising in the 19th, falling sharply in the early twentieth century, then rising again from the 1960s to the present day. Macro-economic factors have played a critical role in shaping alcohol consumption, as have the availability of alternative drinks and leisure activities. However, policy decisions—especially regarding licensing practice and taxation—have also been instrumental in organising retail structures and framing patterns of consumption.

  1.2  James Nicholls researches the history of public attitudes to drinking in England. He is the author of The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drink Question in England (Manchester University Press, 2009).


  2.1  It is often claimed that heavy drinking among the English stretches back many centuries; however, hard evidence regarding medieval consumption is limited. Many early sources, such as William of Malmesbury's description of drunkenness as a "universal practice" among the English, need to be treated with caution. A letter from St Boniface to Archbishop Cuthbert of Canterbury, which claims the "vice of drunkenness is far too common in your parishes" has been described by a recent historian as "at odds with the evidence".[57] Opportunities for heavy drinking among the peasantry would have been limited in medieval England since ale production was seasonal and domestic. The late-medieval tradition of church-ales did provide occasions for drunkenness; however, such events were sporadic. Wine-drinking was widespread among social elites, but accurate consumption figures are hard to ascertain. It is, therefore, impossible to say with certainty that medieval Britons drank more heavily than their continental neighbours.


  3.1  An Act empowering local Justices to close alehouses was passed in 1494. This was followed, in 1552, by legislation requiring alehouse-keepers to acquire a licence prior to trading. While presented as a measure to tackle social disorder, this was also a means of formally regulating an increasingly commercialised trade. A small number of writers identified public drunkenness as a specific social problem. Some claimed it was a remnant of pre-Reformation festive culture, others blamed the adoption of continental drinking habits.


  4.1  Six Acts were passed between 1604 and 1627, most of which sought to prevent alehouse-keepers from permitting drunkenness on their premises. Numerous broadsides against public drunkenness were also published. The number of alehouses did rise significantly in this period, but there is less concrete evidence for a rise in social disorder. Both legislation and anti-drink literature developed in the context of the rise of Puritanism and widespread fears regarding political instability. Anti-drink literature commonly identified the drinking of healths as the primary cause of public drunkenness. Wine was drunk in significant quantities within elite society. Conspicuous sobriety became unfashionable following the Restoration, largely due to its association with Puritanism. Convivial drunkenness became an important feature of Restoration culture, and the ability to drink was established as a marker of masculine virtue.


  5.1  The consumption of gin increased in the early 18th century. Annual per capita consumption rose from around 0.5 gallons in 1700 to around two gallons in 1740.[58] Various causes have been suggested. Gin retailers were not required to take out a licence until 1729, and the restrictions on production were lifted from 1690, partly to promote gin as an alternative to French brandy. Gin was taxed heavily, with excise almost doubling between 1690 and 1710, but this was not designed to reduce consumption—nor did it. In 1736, a coordinated political campaign, driven largely by concerns over consumption among women and the urban poor, led to legislation which introduced de facto prohibition through the imposition of £50 licence fees for gin-sellers. The experiment was a disaster, leading to widespread public disorder and a general contempt for the law. The Act was repealed in 1743.

  5.2  Consumption declined after 1743, due partly to an inclusive licensing regime which encouraged responsible retail, combined with more effective excise controls. Concern over public drunkenness remained high, however, and a second campaign led to further legislation in 1751. 1751 Gin Act marked the end of widespread public concern over gin-drinking, though the continuing fall in consumption was driven primarily by bad harvests and lowering real incomes.

  5.3  Throughout the 18th century, the rise of coffee houses and the adoption of politeness by sections of the middle class popularised the notion that sobriety could be the guarantor of social progress. This challenged established practices linking conviviality with heavy drinking. Beer was promoted by many anti-gin campaigners as the patriotic (and sober) alternative to gin. Despite this, beer consumption fell significantly throughout the 18th century, largely due to the increasing popularity of tea, coffee and chocolate.


  6.1  In 1825, in an attempt to prevent smuggling, excise duties on spirits were slashed. Consumption rose sharply, then levelled. Despite declining beer consumption, concern over the regulation of alehouses persisted and many magistrates used their discretionary powers to reduce alehouse numbers in their jurisdictions. This led to claims of unaccountability which, coupled with calls to promote beer as an alternative to spirit-drinking and the development of laissez-faire economics, increased pressure for licensing liberalisation. In 1830 a Beer Act was passed which removed the requirement for retailers of beer only to acquire a licence, replacing it with a single excise fee. Within one year 24,000 beer shops had opened, rising to 40,000 within three years. Annual per capita consumption of beer, however, fell over the next three years before rising from 1834. Despite this, there was a significant outcry against the Act in sections of the press and Parliament with many claiming the Act encouraged widespread drunkenness. The Beer Act was amended in 1834, reintroducing a certificate of character for retailers and creating the first legislative distinction between on and off sales. The Beer Act was finally repealed in 1869.

  6.2  Consumption of beer, wine and spirits increased steadily from 1840 to a peak in 1877, as did consumption of tea and soft drinks. Consumption of all drinks was generally lower during economic downturns, and higher during periods of prosperity. Increasing alcohol consumption encouraged the development of an energetic temperance movement, which incorporated a politically sophisticated prohibition campaign. The Liberal Party adopted prohibitionist policies in 1891—but suffered electoral damage after attempting to translate this into legislation. The temperance movement as a whole suffered from an unwillingness to acknowledge the rights of moderate drinkers, and it was publicly condemned on this point by, among others, Charles Dickens and John Stuart Mill.[59]


  7.1  Alcohol consumption began to fall from 1880. Many explanations have been forwarded for this, including the increased availability of alternative drinks and the development of alternative leisure activities including train excursions, spectator sports, parks, libraries and museums—many of which had been facilitated by legislation. Increased taxes were imposed under Lloyd George's "People's Budget" of 1909, but these were followed by a levelling of wine and spirit consumption and a small rise in beer-drinking.

  7.2  The early twentieth century also saw renewed debates over the role of local magistrates in reducing the numbers of licences in their areas. Policies encouraging the closure of superfluous pubs were adopted by both the Liberal and Tory parties, but protracted, and politically consequential, arguments ensued over the issue of State compensation for the withdrawal of licences. This debate acquired political significance because it addressed a fundamental principle concerning the status of alcohol as a commodity: whether an alcohol retail licence was a gift from the State, or the administrative restriction of an otherwise natural right.

  7.3  The outbreak of war in 1914 strengthened the arm of those who favoured more direct State intervention, and a Central Control Board was established in 1915 to manage the alcohol trade across most of the UK. Existing restrictions on opening hours and Sunday trading were tightened, excise duties on beer and spirits were increased significantly, and the strengths of both were reduced. The CCB also took direct control of the whole alcohol trade in Carlisle, Gretna and the Cromarty Firth. The CCB combined restrictive measures with constructive engagement with brewers, the improvement of pub environments, and the employment of salaried pub managers. Alcohol consumption fell dramatically over the course of the War, as did arrests for drunkenness. Again, there are competing explanations for this. The CCB restricted access to alcohol, but also pro-actively encouraged responsible pub management. Lloyd George sought to position alcohol as a direct threat to the war effort and strongly backed tax rises. Wartime austerity may have been a factor, but so too was the enormous death toll among young men in battle.

  7.4  Consumption rose briefly to 1920, but then declined again—remaining low over the next four decades. There was also evidence of young people seeking alternatives to the pub. In 1931, a Royal Commission on Licensing wrote that "drunkenness has gone out of fashion". Two years later the Brewers Society launched a nationwide advertising campaign to "get the beer-drinking habit instilled into … millions of young men who do not at present know the taste of beer". In 1943, Mass-Observation noted that young people represented the lowest proportion of pub-goers, preferring to frequent milk bars and coffee shops (Mass-Observation also recorded that women made up 31% of pub goers in Bolton).[60] Throughout the 1930s, a significant number of brewers responded to falling sales by adopting "pub improvement" as a means of attracting a more affluent clientele, including more women. Despite heavy investment, and some success in dissociating pubs from fears over drunkenness, pub improvement failed to bolster the falling market and was largely abandoned.

  7.5  The decline in wine and spirits consumption continued throughout Word War II, although beer consumption increased. Around 30 million barrels of beer were produced in 1943 compared to 18 million in 1933 despite increases in taxation which led to beer being both more expensive and weaker.[61] This may have been due partly to the cultural lead given by Government: whereas Lloyd George had identified drinking as a wartime enemy, Churchill's government was keen to position convivial beer drinking as a wholesome, and morale-boosting, aspect of British culture.


  8.1  By the 1950s, overall consumption remained comparatively low. The number of alternative leisure activities was proliferating, and wartime taxation meant that beer struggled to compete with non-intoxicating alternatives in terms of both quality and price. The industry responded with a combination of aggressive consolidation and the introduction of new drinks, particularly lager, targeted at the youth market and women drinkers. Over the following decade, the resurgence of the drink trade was aided by the expansion of the youth market, increased levels of affluence, and Licensing Acts in 1961 and 1964 which were explicitly geared towards the licensing liberalisation. While the 1961 Act retained the "afternoon gap" for pubs, it allowed weekday off-sales of alcohol from 8.30 am to 10.30 pm. This made it easier for the new supermarkets to compete in the drinks retail business, as well as further blurring the distinction between alcohol and other consumable commodities. Sales of all alcohol increased markedly between 1961 and 1980: annual beer production increased by 54%; spirits consumption increased by 208%; and wine consumption rose by 346%. However, by 1980 overall per capita consumption in the UK still remained lower than in eleven of the countries that now make up the EU.[62]

  8.2  Patterns of consumption changed in this period, with the number of pubs falling slightly, while off-licences increased by 60%.[63] In the early 1980s overall consumption levelled, but increased from 1987 to 1990. It then levelled again before rising significantly between 1997 and 2004. While these fluctuations mirror periods of economic recession and growth, relative price is also a factor. Although alcohol prices increased, relative to inflation, by 19.2% between 1980 and 2007, it has also been estimated that alcohol became 69.4% more affordable, relative to household incomes, over the same period.[64] Proportionately, beer sales fell, spirits remained level while wine and ready-to-drink mixers increased considerably. Between 1980 and 2004 beer consumption fell by 25% while wine consumption increased by 93%.[65]


  9.1  In the late 1980s, free-market approaches once again targeted the monopolistic power of the brewing industry, which had further concentrated since the 1960s. As in 1830, the vertical integration of the trade via the "tied house" system was identified as disadvantaging consumers and skewing the market. In 1990, following a Monopolies and Mergers Commission report, the "Beer Orders" were passed. These forced brewers owning more than 2,000 pubs to sell half their remaining stock, in principle allowing for the development of a healthy independent market. In reality, much of the stock was bought by retail oriented investment groups (colloquially known as "pubcos") who exploited the fact that exclusive supply agreements with brewers were allowed in the final version of the Beer Orders. Many brewers sold their production arms to global producers such as InBev and Coors.

  9.2  The Beer Orders have been blamed for initiating the rise of high-street superbars, but there were other contributory factors. These included the desire on the part of many local authorities to use the leisure economy as an engine of urban regeneration. In addition to supporting licence applications from well-financed pub chains, many city authorities used provisions under the 1964 Act to facilitate de facto licensing liberalisation in city centres. By 2003, 61% of city centre bars were trading beyond 11 pm.[66] From 1996, licensing magistrates who wished to restrict the number of pubs in their jurisdiction were stymied by a central Government directive stating that magistrates should take no systematic account of "need" when adjudicating licence applications. It has also been suggested that the drinks trade responded to the expansion of youth drug cultures by promoting new drinks (such as alcopops and ready-to-drink mixers) using imagery culled from the rave scene.


  10.1  In this context, the 2003 Licensing Act was less of a radical departure than may at first be supposed. While the introduction of 24-hour licensing was explicitly presented as a harm-reduction measure (based on studies suggesting that the "11 o'clock swill" exacerbated antisocial behaviour), in many city centres, it formalised what was already in place. While consumption increased significantly throughout from the mid-1990s to 2004, it stabilised from 2004 (General Household Survey figures agree with this, but the updated method for calculating units per drink produced a marked increase in estimated levels from 2006). Arguably, the more historically significant element of the 2003 Act was the decision to move licensing from magistrates—where it had sat since 1552—to local authorities. In principle, this represented a democratisation of decision-making; in practice, the national guidelines issued to local authorities meant that their discretionary power to reject licence applications was severely curtailed. Furthermore, the thrust of the 2003 Act was geared towards the on-trade whereas the principle expansion of consumption was driven by the off-trade. As a proportion of total expenditure on alcohol, purchases from pubs fell 12% between 1998 and 2007, while supermarket purchases rose 18%.[67] This suggests that increased consumption may be driven by an off-trade which, until recently, escaped large scale public attention.


1.   Licensing

  11.1  When licensing controls have been eased consumption and/or alcohol-related harms have tended to increase. Licensing regulations have historically fallen more heavily on the on-trade than the off-trade.

    — Discretionary powers for licensing authorities should be robust but transparent.

    — Incentives for well-managed premises could be considered.

    — Off-sales can contribute at least as significantly to alcohol-related harms as on-sales.

2.   Tradition

  12.1  Patterns of consumption have fluctuated in response to economic, legislative and social factors. Claims that the British have an inherent tendency to drink heavily are problematic and risk reinforcing social norms and expectations which can encourage heavy drinking. However, there is a long history of positive value being attached to convivial drinking; consequently, interventions which are perceived as failing to distinguish between moderate and problematic drinkers have tended to be unpopular and, occasionally, counter-productive.

    — Caution should be exercised when making claims about British traditions of excessive drinking

    — Economics and legislation can have some influence on cultural practice

    — A public debate should be sought on definitions of "moderate" and "excessive" drinking as regards both health risks and acceptable social behaviours.

3.   Pricing

  13.1  Alcohol-related problems at a societal level have often arisen from structural changes to specific areas of the alcohol market (gin, the retail on-trade in beer, off-licences, alcopops and so forth). Region, income, gender, the location of licensed premises, on—and off-sales, and beverage choice are all key policy variables. Where drinks have become more affordable their consumption has tended to increase, with macro-economic factors having a significant impact. Tax reductions, which have translated into cheaper retail prices, have produced spikes in consumption (eg 1825); however, tax increases have not always directly resulted in reduced consumption—though this may be due to their impact relative to wider levels of disposable income. There has, historically, been considerable tension between the on and off trades, with each promoting legislation which backs their sectional interests.

    — The off-trade may benefit from strategies which disproportionately affect pubs and clubs, thus restricting their impact.

    — Targeted approaches (such as minimum unit pricing or differential taxation according to beverage/strength) may be effective in addressing specific problem areas.

Dr James Nicholls

Bath Spa University

April 2009

57   Y Hen (1995) Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul, AD. 481-751 (Brill), 236. Back

58   J Warner (2003) Craze (Profile), 3; 177. Back

59   Table 1: G Wilson (1940) Alcohol and the Nation (Nicholson and Watson) Back

60   Mass-Observation (1943) The Pub and the People (Victor Gollancz), 187. Back

61   A. Tighe, ed. (2007) Statistical Handbook (BBPA). Back

62   Ibid. Back

63   Ibid. Back

64   ONS (2008) Statistics on Alcohol, England. Back

65   Op Cit 4. Back

66   P. Hadfield (2006) Bar Wars (OUP), 52. Back

67   ONS (2007) Drinking: Adults Behaviour and Knowledge in 2007. Back

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