Newcastle’s alcohol journey
Newcastle has a reputation as a place to enjoy yourself. For years we have had an image as the ‘party city’ where there are good times to be had.
Over the last few years we’ve worked hard to change that image – to address the terrible, social, economic and health effects of excess alcohol consumption. This has involved taking radical action at a local level, forging new partnerships, challenging many assumptions – and has identified what I believe are the limits of current legislation for local government in improving our abusive relationship with drink.
I believe we’ve accomplished a lot over a relatively short period of time. I think there are things that other councils, confronting similar problems, can learn from our approach. And I’ve got some messages about how our Government needs to change legislation in order to head off a growing public health crisis.
For example, in Newcastle we know that alcohol is a contributory factor in domestic violence, violence that can lead to a child becoming ‘looked after’. The rough cost to us of looking after a young person in one of our own children’s homes is £1,900 per week and our numbers of looked after children are rising rapidly.
- The North East has the highest rate of alcohol related deaths in England.
- Alcohol costs the region up to £1.3bn each year, that’s more than £400 pounds per person. In my city it costs £512 for every man woman and child living in Newcastle, that’s the highest in the North East.
- There was a 403 per cent rise in the numbers of 30-34 year olds admitted into the North East region’s hospitals with alcoholic liver disease between 2003 and 2010. Just imagine if that was a 403 per cent rise in fatalities through road accidents, we’d be asking serious questions.
- 26 per cent of our 11-15 year-olds have admitted drinking alcohol in the last week and at levels way exceeding the adult low risk limits
While national Government dithers on the alcohol issue, for example minimum alcohol pricing, local councils take action – albeit with limited powers at their disposal.
In addition to the minimum unit price that we are building into new licences, just look at our late night levy – the first in the UK – introduced in Newcastle just last month.
It means that licensed premises which sell alcohol between midnight and 6am will have to pay an annual levy of between £299 and £4,400 depending on their rateable value.
The money raised will be split between the council (30 per cent) and the police (70 per cent) and used to address crime and disorder, public safety, public nuisance and street cleansing relating to the supply of alcohol.
It was praised by Home Office Minister Norman Baker who congratulated us and praised our bravery on being the first local authority to introduce the Late Night Levy.
I’m proud that we’re leading the national agenda on this, and I think we’re gaining a reputation as a place that isn’t afraid to ‘rock the boat’.
We’ve taken that approach to our national conversations. We’ve not been afraid to criticise the Government’s relationship with the alcohol industry and we’re pushing for health to become the dominant perspective through which the alcohol debate should be viewed.
That’s why I’m so pleased with the work of the North East alcohol office Balance around alcohol and health. At the minute the industry is willfully blind to the damage it causes. It is happy to see alcohol framed in a community safety context – the argument is that it’s just a minority who make trouble so why legislate to stop everyone’s fun?
I’ve got a story that provides a valuable insight into the industry’s attitude. A year ago, at the height of our conversation around alcohol, I wrote to Aston Manor Brewery in the West Midlands.
I wrote to them because I wanted to tell them the enormous problem a drink they made, a strong cider called Frosty Jacks, was causing among our street drinkers and young people.
I wanted to express my concern that they marketed their product via Facebook and that it was available for pocket money prices.
I wrote to the chief executive, and to their credit, I got a letter back within a week.
They told me the misuse of alcohol by a minority of individuals was a ‘serious concern’, but added that I needed to focus on the substance, but on the individual.
They told they could not influence retail pricing of their products, that they could not do anything about sales to young people and that social media was a ‘legitimate area of brand communication’.
In fairness to Aston Manor they argued their points well, but they still ‘don’t get it’. They, like others in the industry, shrug their shoulders and say it is up to others to legislate. After all, they only make the stuff, it is up to others how it is sold and consumed.
They can do this partly because the public associates excess drinking with the behaviour of a minority. Think of Newcastle and drink and you’ll think of lads and lasses in the Bigg Market, not the growing numbers of younger people admitted to hospital at a shockingly young age with liver diseases usually seen in the vital organs of long-term alcoholics.
In Aston Manor’s alternative reality their product is part of our social glue, consumed by healthy people, in moderation who have a fun and responsible time.
The truth, for many is different. In our city, Frosty Jacks is the street drink of choice, cheap and easily available, contributing to trapping many in a cycle of alcohol dependency. It’s known in Newcastle as Tramp Juice. What an accolade.
Unless the Government abandons laissez faire and gives councils and communities the powers they need, alcohol will continue to exert a shocking toll on our community’s health and wellbeing.
These are our five big asks of Westminster:
- Introduce a national minimum unit price for alcohol, at 50p per unit so that we can remove the cheapest most dangerous drink from our shelves. It is wrong that booze is available at pocket money prices, and perverse that you can buy alcohol cheaper than water in many supermarkets. Our experience in Newcastle is that this move would be heartily welcomed by the on-trade.
- Reframe alcohol as a health, as well as a community safety, issue. The first of the four statutory licensing objectives is ‘the prevention of crime and disorder’; the harm being caused to people’s health is increasing and will continue to increase until we give equal if not greater weight to public health in the Alcohol Strategy and the Licensing Act. The Government should allow us to introduce a fifth licensing objective – the protection and promotion of public health.
- The Licensing Act needs reviewing. It is unfairly weighted toward the interests of the Industry and whoever can buy the best Barrister. As a result residents are cynical about coming forward and getting involved.
- We know that exposure to advertising encourages a young person to start drinking earlier and to drink more. So it’s shocking that children are more likely to see alcohol adverts than adults. In the North East alcohol is advertised in cinemas with a 12A certificate and sold alongside popcorn and sweets.
- Finally, we have learned from Tobacco about the tactics of the industry. I would urge the Government to think about who they are allowing to influence alcohol policy in the UK. We already have an international framework on Tobacco Control, drawn up by the World Health Organisation. We need a similar, internationally agreed, treaty on alcohol and we need to lobby Government to sign up to it.
And whilst we argue over the detail of minimum pricing, or watersheds for advertising, or licensing policy, let’s not forget that we have to look at the root of the problem.
Alcohol and its abuse starts with one person. Many of us in this room today will know or may have known someone who has or had a problem with alcohol. It is often a personal tragedy brought on by a variety of complex and hard-to-solve factors.
But we do need to address the wider issues in society that we know lead people to seek solace in alcohol. We need to raise people’s aspirations, making them feel they belong to a wider society that respects what they have to offer and cares about what they have to say.
People with no hope, no escape and no future can turn to alcohol to get through the day or to forget about a troubled past. If we’re going to really tackle the issue of alcohol misuse we put equality of opportunity and of outcome at the heart of everything we do.
That’s the massive challenge all of us, regardless of our role or political colour, face in the years ahead.
If we are serious at turning back the tide, we need action which doesn’t just address the symptoms of alcohol use, but the causes too. That’s the journey that we have started in Newcastle.