The road in which I live connects a long, shady stretch of green space, with a few benches, and a rather grubby inner London high street that seems to have more than its fair share of 24 hour off licences. When I sit at home looking out of a front window, it is not unusual to see—even at 8 am or 9 am—passers-by clutching cans of lager or cider, on their way to sit on the green and drink their way through the morning. Fortunately, as the drinkers gather, I rarely hear any more than a few laughs and the occasional shout, and I have never been aware of any violence associated with the groups.
But people walking the streets carrying cans of cheap, super-strength alcohol at all hours is a common sight in our towns and cities, and, in many places, where there are street drinkers so there are violent incidents. In Suffolk, harmful consumption of cheap alcohol played a part in the deaths of 12 members of Ipswich’s street drinking community. Four of these deaths were murders.
As Jonathan Gornall writes in an article on bmj.com, these killings sparked “a remarkable voluntary initiative that in the past 18 months has seen cheap, high strength alcohol products swept from the shelves of most of Ipswich’s shops and which is now being adopted by authorities across England and Wales.” Realising that the street drinkers they were dealing with in Ipswich were particularly vulnerable and chaotic people, Suffolk police and partners (the local councils and Suffolk Drug and Alcohol Team) launched a 36 point plan, Start Afresh, to help those who wished it to escape their street drinking lifestyle. Gornall says that the plan was backed by enforcement, but focused on education, and involved making it harder for street drinkers to obtain the cheap super strength alcohol on which they depended. For example, retailers were asked if they would voluntarily remove from sale super strength, low price beer, lager, and alcohol. “As of December 2013, 94 off-licensed premises in Ipswich—64% of the total—had signed up to the scheme and been declared ‘super strength free.’” Success factors so far include 23.5% fewer incidents related to street drinking reported by the public—a drop from 341 to 261.
It is still early days, but already other cities, such as Birmingham, Nottingham, and Portsmouth, are showing interest. As is the drinks industry, which has, according to Gornall, expressed “serious concerns regarding the implementation of ‘voluntary’ local bans on higher strength beers and ciders.”
It was Gornall who earlier this year in The BMJ exposed the government consultation into introducing a minimum unit price for alcohol in England and Wales as a sham, derailed in favour of protecting industry interests. In this latest article, he shows how the police and local authorities are left to pick up the pieces—and are beginning to succeed.
Trevor Jackson is a deputy editor, The BMJ.