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WMN opinion: Use the law to beat public drunks, not price fixing

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: January 28, 2012

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As a GP and an MP Sarah Wollaston is well placed to know about both the effects of alcohol abuse and the ways in which the problems it causes might be solved. But her call today in the Western Morning News for minimum pricing is not, we respectfully suggest, the right way to proceed.

Price controls are inherently anti-competitive and penalise everyone. There is simply no place for them in a free market economy. There are, however, some goods and services on which restrictions must be placed and alcohol is clearly one of them. Yet slowly but surely in recent years the rules surrounding the sale and consumption of alcoholic drinks have been loosened.

Booze can now be bought and consumed at virtually any time of the day or night at a huge range of premises. Beer, wine and spirits are displayed in supermarkets in almost the same way as every other class of goods. Pubs and bars routinely open into the early hours in town and city centres. Binge drinkers, whether out of their heads on cut-price cider from the supermarket or over-priced lager from the nightclub, are one of the curses of the modern age.

As a result, it seems police forces up and down the country have concluded, in some cases reluctantly, that public drunkenness – with all the fear and inconvenience it creates for law-abiding people – is a problem to be tolerated rather than tackled. Huge resources are put into "managing" the late night troublespots, even installing mobile NHS casualty units in nightclub districts, but far too little is done to enforce the law relating to public drunks.

Ms Wollaston acknowledges this failure and her recommendation that a US-style twice daily breath test be part of the punishment meted out to persistent drunks who commit crime is a good one. If it were linked to a much less tolerant attitude by the police and the local licensing authorities to premises that persistently serve customers who are already drunk and drinkers who are clearly incapable in public, we might begin to see things improve.

Drinks manufacturers and retailers must be free to set their prices based on the cost of production and what the market will bear. But that doesn't mean a free-for-all for those determined to abuse alcohol. Laws already exist to crack down on them – and those who supply them – very hard indeed. They must be implemented.

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It must be right that a solution is found to enable Falmouth harbour to be dredged so that larger vessels can make safe passage into the port. Of course the environment is important; but a balance has to be struck between realising the full potential, in jobs and investment, of a facility like Falmouth and looking after the underwater life. It looks as if, as the WMN exclusively reveals today, a workable compromise is getting closer. Let's hope, for the sake of our regional economy, it works.

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