Former (retired) lead on drug prevention and education for Cheshire Constabulary, Allan Brown, is concerned about the proliferation of alcohol home delivery services - services that sell alcohol over the phone or online and deliver it direct to the customer. In this article for Alcohol Policy UK he argues that such services are a step too far on the path of licensing reform.
Last summer John Woodhouse, a contributor to a Staffordshire newspaper, wrote in relation to the opening of a 24-hour fast food venue:
Now that might be an overly simplistic view, and there are probably going to be as many who wholeheartedly crave a 24-hour society as there are those who fear and loathe it, but whichever camp you occupy there is no denying that the world in the 21st Century is a high-octane a place. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke last year of his concerns that the review ordered into 24-hour drinking by Prime Minister Gordon Brown would conclude that the legislation has been largely a success. He said:
However the point of my writing is not to debate the whys and wherefores of government policy or even bemoan the impact of our 24 hour party culture, but merely to engender a discussion around one element of our drinking society, the proliferation of alcohol home delivery services.
Back in 2006, Dr Sheila Shribman, National Clinical Director for Children, Young People and Maternity Services raised concerns about the possible abuse of irresponsible alcohol home delivery services and it seemed that the Department of Health were preparing to launch a campaign. Yet the number and variety of such services increases daily and whilst some licensing authorities have blocked individuals plans, most reluctantly agree to licensing the activity, albeit on extensive conditions.
There are obviously many types of service providers, from major supermarkets, to dedicated off site retailers, internet companies, to Taxi firms who sell alcohol out of the boot of a car; whatever retailer or the mode of delivery, they all present the same sort of problems for regulation, enforcement and monitoring. They all generate public health concerns because they make alcohol more available and in some cases provide immediate round the clock access.
This is not solely a problem of the 21st century living; I recall from my youth the sight of the Birmingham brewer Davenports, delivering “beer at home” across the West Midlands, although in those halcyon days it seemed to me that such excess was the sole preserve of the well to do and my supposed social betters. Off Licences were sparsely scattered throughout predominately urban areas, relatively few in number, and the main sources of alcohol were public houses.
Today the availability of alcohol is beyond comparison to previous generations. From corner store to supermarket, pub, off licence and petrol station, wherever you are in this country alcohol is within the reach of all. Yet it is against this background that home delivery services have proliferated. On the introduction of the Licensing Act 2003 focus shifted to activity at a specific premises and the operator of those premises, there were cases where some retailers established delivery services believing that they didn’t require a license at all.
In most cases such practice has been corrected, but the hangover from such lack of definition is evident in the wider ranging licensing responses across the country. In some areas licence applications are rejected, in others granted without concern, and in yet more only granted under a significant number of conditions. Surely the time is right for consistency in Licensing and is it too much to expect government to provided standard conditions for such services?
At the outset of the expansion this market was greeted with suspicion and concern, but many of those concerns do not seem to have arisen. Much publicity was given to the prospect that services would increase underage drinking, and in some area of the country that has resulted in prosecutions. But there doesn’t appear to be an evidence base that links the availability of such services to the increase in under age drinking, except perhaps the study (Fletcher et al, quoted here) which surveyed young people and retailers in 15 small and midsize communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin and showed that 10% of 12th graders (16 to 18 yrs of age) reported purchasing alcohol delivered by a retailer to a home or individual in the past year.
Perhaps the absence of a consistent Licensing approach is only to be expected given the lack of reliable evidence to justify opposition. One would have thought that the immediacy of such services might be reflected in increased public disorder, domestic violence or even lead to a greater number of falls in the elderly, but there are seemingly few negative outcomes that can be directly attributable to home delivery services themselves. There have of course been some successful prosecutions of irresponsible retailers but maybe the lack of an evidence base to ban such services is a reflection of the complexity of the delivery model where sale occurs at a multiplicity of private venues.
I wonder whether the real question is not, do such services increase public disorder and public health problems, but are they needed in a world where many other sources of alcohol abound, or are home delivery services even socially desirable? Can society achieve the level of control it needs to deliver acceptable public health outcomes if the law of the market is allowed to persist in this regard?