Alcohol, violence, and the allure of ‘economic man’

By April 24, 2014Uncategorized

Findings from a Cardiff University study this week revealed a drop in violent crime. Most news media reports drew a correlation between the reduction in crime and the increased expense of alcohol. Professor Jonathan Shepherd, who authored the report, attributed a large part of the change to “falls in disposable income” meaning people were less able to go out drinking. Others said the reduction was down to the increased expense of drinking in pubs, and Professor John Ashton, head of the UK Faculty of Public Health, called for further increases to alcohol prices as part of “a push to bring down consumption levels further”.

While it is compelling to frame the debate in this way – and doubtless there is some causal link between the expense of drinking and reduced levels of violence – we need to look for more sophisticated solutions than simply cranking up prices. As analysts of public health behaviour change, we at TCC repeatedly see the limitations of supply-focused solutions to public health problems. Increases in pricing may have had some success as a method of containing the so-called Gin Crazes of 18th Century Britain – when quality of life was much lower and alcoholic drinks were eye-wateringly cheap – but in 2014 we need a subtler approach.

In his book Identity and Violence, Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen criticises the model – popular in economic theory – of the rational, self-loving ‘economic man’. Sen mocks the line of thought that runs “If it was not in your interest, why would you have chosen to do what you did?” and points out the role played by an individual’s identity, as well as by “the values and norms of the community in which the person belongs”. We need to consider these factors more deeply when we assess public health problems. After all, excessive drinking is not an especially rational thing to do in the first place. If people were making decisions about alcohol consumption on the basis of a reasoned cost-benefit analysis then it seems likely that most of us would have given up long ago.

It appears just as probable that heavy drinking – and the social problems that come with it – has evolved rather than diminished. At the end of 2013 it was reported that, for the first time, at-home drinking had overtaken that in licensed premises, with ONS figures suggesting that the average family spent more on alcohol in supermarkets and off licences than in pubs and bars. This transition may seem like a boon for violence and public disorder – people are less likely, one would have thought, to swing a punch in their own home than they are in a crowded kebab shop – but the extent to which it is an unmitigated benefit remains unclear. After all, spending £7.80 a week on shop-bought booze – as the average UK family did in 2012 – will get you considerably more sloshed than the £7.40 the same family is likely to have spent in the pub. It is possible that, rather than cutting down, we are moving towards a cloistered, behind-closed-doors relationship with alcohol.

The implications this could have for levels of violence are unclear. Instances of domestic abuse appear to have increased in recent years (there were 80,000 incidents in 2011-12 – 60,000 more than 2010-11), and it seems possible – not to say probable – that this has been influenced by the rise in stay-at-home drinking. Given what an underreported crime domestic abuse is, could it be possible that heavy drinking and the violence that can accompany it have simply moved indoors?

Changing a national drinking culture is, of course, a notoriously difficult thing to do – especially in the UK, a country with a proud tradition of scuffling outside late night chicken shops and taxi ranks – and it is tempting to fall back on the ‘economic man’ way of looking at the issue. Financial factors do, undoubtedly, play a role in the decisions people make, and pulling economic levers may deter the ‘low hanging fruit’. But to get to the root of the problem we need more research into the reasons behind our drinking culture – and the implications for violence levels of the shift to indoor drinking.

Chris Clarke is an Associate Researcher at The Campaign Company. For more information about the behaviour change work that The Campaign Company does, please go here.