Relaxed drink laws open opportunities for study
Researchers use Britain's more liberal licensing to study public health.
Researchers are using the change in Britain's licensing laws to see how the policy will affect drinking habits and public health.
This November, in pubs across England and Wales, many customers found they were no longer shunted onto the street shortly after closing time at 11 pm. Under new licensing laws, more than 1,000 pubs were granted the option to stay open 24 hours a day. And about 40% of pubs applied to stay open an extra hour or two.
Most public health experts condemned the change. But it will give them a chance to hone their theories about how availability effects drinking, and the attendant violence and health issues.
"It's a great opportunity," says Robin Room, a sociologist in Stockholm University in Sweden who studies alcohol use. "Lots of interesting social policy questions can be studied."
Every so often, an event throws up an unexpected research opportunity. When US air-traffic was grounded after the 11 September terrorist attacks, climate scientists noticed that the daily temperature range increased, owing to the absence of airplane trails that normally trap heat close to the ground.
Now Colin Drummond, a psychiatrist at St Georges Hospital in London, is using the world as a laboratory. His first step will be to monitor hospital admissions, he says, as previous work has shown a positive correlation between medical emergencies and local alcohol consumption.
Drummond and others, including Martin Plant, director of the Alcohol and Health Research Trust at the University of the West of England in Bristol, are pessimistic about the outcome of the law change.
In a review released this August1, Plant cites several cases where liberalization has led to increased drinking. In 1999, Iceland extended opening hours in its capital, Reykjavik. Admissions to hospital emergency departments rose, as did drink-driving offences. And the police noted increased drug dealing in bars with longer opening hours.
Likewise, when the Republic of Ireland liberalized licensing laws in 2000, alcohol-related offences rose from 12% to 17%. There is also anecdotal evidence that more people missed work on Fridays with hangovers. After complaints from police and health authorities, the government repealed many of the changes in 2003.
"We share a very similar drinking culture to Ireland," Drummond says. "But you've got to keep an open mind," he adds. "Britain might not follow the trend."
The British government has argued that the new laws might stop binge drinking, where pub-goers drink hard just before closing time. When drinkers spill onto the streets en masse, city centres can become messy, violent places. Extending opening hours could promote a slower, more continental style of drinking.
Plant is seeking government funding for a project to study the new laws' impact. His and Drummond's work should help inform any future amendments of the policies.
- Plant E. J., Plant M., Int. J. Drug Policy in press.