In the sidebar, I say of the possible reduction of the UK drink-driving limit that “In my, view this is at least as much a threat to pubs as the smoking ban.” And it seems that I’m not the only one. In the weeks following the limit cut in Scotland, many pubs, clubs and bars have seen their trade drop off a cliff.
Paul Waterson, chief executive of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, said the law change would lead to a “complete change to drinking habits” and would be “bigger than the smoking ban.It seems that bars in golf clubs, which have a much wider social base in Scotland than south of the border, are especially feeling the pinch. These are classic examples of where the primary purpose of people’s car journeys is something else, but they take the opportunity to combine it with a drink in the bar. It’s easy to say “I could have told you that”, but from my perspective it seems that the cut was nodded through with the support of all four major political parties in Scotland and little organised opposition. The point must also be made that, if drivers have cut down, they must have believed they were obeying the previous law. Existing lawbreakers would be undeterred.
“Rural pubs especially are at risk because people travel to them,” he said. “This definitely will be a difficult situation for many. It’s having a marked effect.
“It stops people having a glass of wine with a meal or a pint with a meal. People are not taking the chance. It’s a game-changer.
“This is a very strict ban by anyone’s standards. We have lost three pubs a week since the smoking ban and this, for many, is worse.”
I’ve written before how the growing reluctance to drive after consuming any alcohol at all has been a major and largely unrecognised factor in the decline of pubs. However, a lot of it does still take place, even though commentators within a metropolitan bubble are reluctant to acknowledge it, and across the country there must be tens of thousands of pubs that derive a substantial proportion of their trade from law-abiding drinking drivers.
In the government response to the 1998 consultation on cutting the limit across the UK, it was stated that:
Pubs and hotels can be a locally significant source of employment, and those in rural areas are particularly dependent on access by car. It is uncertain nevertheless how many are critically dependent on customers who expect to drink 3-4 units of alcohol and drive home afterwards and would be disinclined to visit the premises at all if they could not legally do this.However, this seems to exhibit a lack of understanding of how pubs work, and how people use them. A pub may not be “critically dependent” on this source of trade, but even a 10% drop in takings could put many out of business. And, as I’ve argued before, many customers may take the view that if they’re limited to one drink it’s not worth bothering at all.
By all means put forward the case for cutting the limit on road safety grounds – although it is my belief that it is a very flimsy one. But please don’t try to pretend it wouldn’t have a severe effect on the licensed trade.
Some may say “well, countries like France and Germany have had a 50 mg limit for decades, and still seem to have a thriving brewing industry and bar scene.” Of course this is true, and nobody is suggesting that a limit cut would completely kill off the pub trade or anything near it. But if you look at these countries they have a much lower proportion of alcohol consumed in the on-trade than we do, and likewise don’t have anything like the same rural, village and suburban drinking places. Maybe they never did, but I suspect if you looked around rural areas you would find a fair number that have gone to the wall.
And, while these countries have a lower headline limit, it was generally the case in the past (although it may not still be today) that a blood-alcohol level over 50 mg would be treated no more seriously than a speeding conviction in this country, and that mandatory driving bans did not kick in until some way over 80 mg.