The first shots have been fired in the great War on Drink, with the government announcing the introduction of a mandatory code of practice for pubs and bars. All you can drink promotions and speed drinking competitions will be banned from April, and pubs required to provide free tap water, while from October smaller measures of beer, wine and spirits must be offered and any customers appearing to be under 18 must be asked for identification. Now, I’m not going to rush to the barricades to defend all you can drink promotions, but taken as a whole these measures represent an unprecedented degree of interference in the way licensed premises are run, which will impose new burdens on responsible and irresponsible licensees alike.
While in reality I can’t see it happening very often, requiring pubs and bars to offer free tap water opens up the opportunity for bloody-minded people to occupy space and use glassware while contributing nothing to the overheads of the establishment. If you were running a pub in the Lake District and a party of eight thirsty hikers came in and demanded eight pints of tap water with ice you might not be too impressed.
I’ve no problem with requiring pubs and bars to offer 125ml glasses of wine, which after all are roughly equivalent to a half of 5% beer or a 35ml measure of spirits. But I’m puzzled as to what they mean by requiring them to serve smaller measures of beers and spirits. Do any pubs actually only serve beer in pints? Or do they mean they’re going to make pubs offer nips, which will involve a costly investment in glassware and possibly dispense equipment to meet a negligible demand? And, likewise, does it just mean pubs will have to offer single measures of spirits, or that a single must be defined as 25ml rather than 35ml, which will require all those pubs that have gone over to 35ml to replace all their optics?
To his credit, on the radio Home Secretary Alan Johnson expressed scepticism about minimum pricing, making the point that it had the potential to penalise reponsible drinkers on modest budgets while leaving the comfortably-off unscathed. But I can’t help thinking that this package marks the first stage of a long process that will be fraught with problems and unintended consequences and won’t in practice do anything to create a more healthy and responsible drinking culture. And, sadly, the Conservatives and Liberal (sic) Democrats seem to be engaged in a bidding competition with Labour as to who can crack down hardest on the Demon Drink.