This was an excellent guest post for Alcohol Policy UK in May which I am sharing again here about alcohol availability in England – or as I see it ‘ever present’.
In this guest post, Colin Angus, a Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield, explores recent research on alcohol availability in England and considerations for policy.
A recent study from the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group highlights how widely available alcohol is in England, and how this has changed in the last decade. The study explores the availability of alcohol through measuring travel distances to the nearest outlet selling alcohol and counting the number of places where alcohol could be bought within walking distance (1km). Researchers looked at how availability had changed between 2003 and 2013, particularly changes in the type of outlets where alcohol was sold, and how availability was related to socioeconomic deprivation.
The key findings include:
- The average distance from the centre of each postcode to somewhere selling alcohol was 323m, with 85% of postcodes being within 500m of an alcohol outlet.
- The average English postcode has 31 outlets selling alcohol within walking distance (1km) of its centre
- Alcohol is more available in the on-trade (places like pubs and restaurants where alcohol is sold for consumption on the premises) than the off-trade (shops where alcohol is sold for consumption elsewhere) based on numbers of licensed premises
- The most deprived 20% of postcodes have around 3 times as many outlets selling alcohol within walking distance of their centre as the least deprived 20%
- A rapid proliferation of convenience stores and metro supermarkets since 2003 has meant that access to pubs and bars has decreased by 8%, while access to off-trade alcohol has increased by over a third.
- Pub closures have been far more common in deprived areas while pub access has increased slightly in other areas.
There are many possible explanations for these findings. Significant changes to licensing were introduced in the 2003 Licensing Act, which came into force in 2005 and made it substantially easier to apply for new off-trade licenses. It is also likely that the economic pressures of the recession have had a major part to play in the economic viability of many pubs, as well as the effects of the 2007 smoking ban. This may explain the more acute declines in deprived areas where the recession has hit harder and smoking rates are higher.
What does this mean for public health?
The physical availability of alcohol is clearly not a barrier to obtaining alcohol in this country. Whilst there is a strong body of evidence showing that reducing the availability of alcohol reduces alcohol-related harm, this evidence is overwhelmingly from countries such as Australia and the USA where there are substantially fewer places to buy alcohol from in the first place. Although a steady reduction in the number of UK alcohol outlets may yield benefits in the long-term, it seems less likely that the closure of a small number of outlets will result in significant reductions in harm as long as alcohol is still widely available.
Declining availability in the most deprived areas, which suffer the most alcohol-related harm, may be seen as a good thing. However, shop-bought alcohol is generally substantially cheaper than that bought in pubs and bars, and access to shops selling alcohol has increased. Some have also expressed concern that a shift from drinking in pubs to drinking at home may bring increased risks to health; pubs may potentially offer a more controlled drinking environment where bar staff and patrons act as a moderating influence on levels of consumption.
Two recent studies have found an association between higher levels of licensing activity in local authorities (in terms of challenging license applications and introducing cumulative impact policies) and greater reductions in alcohol-related hospital admissions and crime. Our findings suggest that unless a radical change in levels of availability can be achieved, local licensing boards may be more likely to have a greater impact on harm if they focus on particular problem outlets. Seeking to address other aspects of availability may also be more fruitful, such as opening hours or the selling of high strength low price products, rather than seeking to reduce the overall number of outlets in an area.
The findings also suggest that licensing actions and government legislation over the past decade or so has done little to directly address the shift in availability from on- to off-trade. Indeed, recent cuts to alcohol duty rates, whilst portrayed by some groups as a boost for the pub industry, have increased the relative gap in prices between the on- and off-trades, potentially accelerating this trend. Whatever the underlying causes of this shift may be, cheap alcohol is easier to access now than at any point in recent history.
This research was part-funded by Alcohol Research UK (R 2014/03).
I find some of those statistics staggering particularly these two: 85% of postcodes being within 500m of an alcohol outlet & the average English postcode has 31 outlets selling alcohol within walking distance (1km) of its centre.
Both shocking and unsurprising to me, how about you?