By Christopher McCollum
“Drunk for a penny,
Dead drunk for two pence,
Clean straw for nothing,”
-Gin Lane, circa 1751
The above quote is attributed to a bar in London during the Gin Madness craze of the 18th century, that took the city by storm to such a degree that the spirit had prohibitive acts passed against it, making it more expensive and difficult to produce.
Today, a report came out in the UK’s Times Online about the falling price of alcohol, and how beer is now cheaper than bottled water, by about 30 pence ($0.48 USD) per liter. The falling prices have resulted in British alcohol awareness groups to decry this marketing tactic, saying that it will cause more alcohol-related deaths due to binge drinking. Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer for England and Wales, earlier this year called for minimum pricing on alcohol, at £6 per six-pack, which would be about $9.75 USD. Donaldson claimed that raising the price by this degree would result in 3,000 fewer alcohol related deaths per year, and 100,000 fewer hospital visits. Gordon Brown and the alcohol industry rejected this price-hike, but knowing England’s past responses to perceived social dangers, I think it’s doubtful that we’ve seen the last of Sir Liam and his ilk.
With beer now costing so little, we are reminded of the Gin Craze that took hold of London, when the spirit was cheaper than beer and cleaner than water, and became so popular that an average of 11 million gallons of it were consumed per year, by a populace that totaled just over 2 million. While beer is not quite the spirit that Gin is, it has still reversed the modern roles of the liquid trio; Beer has taken over for water as the cheapest of the three, and as such, more easily attainable.
In 2005, there were nearly 15,000 alcohol related deaths in England, and though the number has fallen drastically over the past couple of years, it is still abnormally high. Many health officials believe that this is because of the cheap price and ready availability of alcohol in a culture that has become inundated with it. Perhaps then, there is a real concern that ‘Beer Madness’ will occur, now that the price is even lower. It can be argued that it wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous an epidemic as the Gin Craze of the 18th century, because of the lower alcohol content… however, with the lower prices, more beer will be consumed for less, which will still cause excessive inebriation as well know. Take this story from Papua New Guinea, for instance, where a truck carrying thousands of cases of beer overturned, and was looted by residents of several local villages. Witnesses reported that almost every single villager was drunk out of their mind for two straight days. While this is an extreme ‘case,’ there is still merit in the warning, that too much excess, no matter how high the alcohol content is, can cause extreme inebriation and result in dangerous actions.
While the prices may be convenient (I, for one, am truly excited about visiting England in the near future, so I can take advantage of it), one must take steps to be even more conscious and responsible than before. The number of alcohol-related deaths is far too high, and there is absolutely no reason for them go anywhere but down. A responsible drinker should know his or her limits, and not to exceed to the point of causing damage to his or herself.
Consider this a call to action: If you live in England, or if you visit England in the near future, take care to not give Sir Liam Donaldson any ammunition to proceed with his drive to raise the price of beer by tenfold.