The Panorama programme on older people and alcoholism last night highlights a growing headache for society, but Panorama’s solution is more likely to make things worse.
The programme itself was a really useful and timely way of raising the issue, and it was great to see the BBC putting this on prime time evening TV. Joan Bakewell was an ideal reporter – she wasn’t patronising and didn’t flinch from some of the serious effects of what alcoholism can do to older people. But it’s a shame that the whole programme led up to the conclusion about raising alcohol prices, and based this on unexplained statistics.
This idea of cutting alcohol consumption was raised a while ago in response to the rising levels of teenagers getting drunk, presumably by someone who had never had any dealings with teenagers. It seemed to be based on the theory that if a group of teenagers did not have enough money to buy alcohol then they would say “Oh dear we haven’t got enough money . . . lets go back to someone’s house and play Scrabble!” and no doubt drink lashings of ginger beer. What is more likely to happen is that if they can’t afford alcohol then they will buy less, but of a higher strength and find some way of getting alcohol without paying for it, or they will find a way to get more money, all of which have knock-on and potentially worse consequences.
And the same is true for older people. Age UK has been running a ‘Heat or Eat’ campaign for the last few years, pointing out that some older people on low incomes have to face the choice between buying food or having their heating on. So, if you have an older person who is reliant on alcohol and prices are raised, then it is more likely that all their money will go on alcohol and they won’t eat properly or heat their homes. The health issues won’t have been solved and you can also add debt and crime to the possible outcomes.
The sad fact with this sort of policy response to an issue is that it looks like activity but it doesn’t tackle the actual cause of the problem. Raising the price of alcohol is not going to stop someone with an actual or potential drink problem from drinking. To do that you need to look at why they are drinking, and the main reason is loneliness and isolation. And what was even odder was that the solution was obvious from the program – those seriously at risk were isolated and alone, and those who weren’t were actively engaged in social activities and communities.
The sticking plaster fix of raising alcohol prices is not going to work. Firstly we need to identify the people at risk, and as every Age UK will tell you, actually finding people who are isolated is probably the biggest challenge we face. Then we have to offer them ways out of the situation, but we also have to accept that if that is the way someone wants to live their life then forcing them not to do it will not work.
There are some excellent charities and agencies helping people with alcoholism, but there is a longer term and deeper change needed to tackle the problem. Increasing prices is just going to leave us with a bigger hangover.