England’s Problem? Not Enough Middlemen

In an article about the “befuddlement” of liquor laws governing the shipment of wine across state lines, the New York Times quotes a key stakeholder, Mr. Wolf, the chairman of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, who highlights another problem as a warning to us all:

“The bottom line is you whittle away at the system little by little, and what you end up with is what you have in England, where cheap alcohol has led to binge drinking through the roof,” he said. “We don’t have tainted and counterfeit products because of wholesalers. This is the gold standard. These things are going to be lost if regulation is ended.”

A quick survey of the allegation reveals that the overconsumption of alcohol isn’t just a simple matter of an American perspective skewed by its experiment with Prohibition–even the natives think so:

Returning to my homeland with fresh eyes, I saw that everyday English life had dislocated itself from the temple of cultivation…even the home secretary recently admitted that Britain’s peculiar drinking problem has fueled an epidemic of ”thuggery and intimidation” [and] has now soused every recess of English civic life.

Indeed, no one is exempt –not even the ruling elite:

”There is a clear and growing problem in our town and city centers up and down the country on Friday and Saturday nights,” said Mr. Blair, whose son, then 16, was found vomiting and incoherent on a London street four years ago after an evening of drinking. ”As a society we have to make sure that this form of what we often call binge drinking doesn’t become the new British disease.”

But other than the offspring of VIPs, incoherent and vomiting 16 year-olds are hardly news in a country whose “young people were the worst-behaved in Europe.” This dubious honor has of course been the subject of debate:

Sociologists, politicians and children’s advocates have argued endlessly about why Britain’s youths are so troubled. Drinking is part of it: consumption among youths who drink has been rising steadily for 20 years. British youths are ranked the third-worst binge drinkers in Europe, behind those in Denmark and Ireland. In a survey last year, 25 percent of British 15-year-olds said they had been drunk more than 20 times in the previous 12 months.

Clearly there are other factors such as poverty that contribute to Britain’s bad behavior, but addressing the alcohol component would surely be a step forward. So how about Mr. Wolf’s implication that a class of honest, hard-working middlemen bound by robust regulations might stand as, well, a thick red line against the overconsumption of alcohol–is there anything to it? Does granting retailers more flexibility in selling their wares enable social problems? Or is Mr. Wolf simply exploiting Britain’s pain for his own gain?



  1. There is good data to suggest that Britons have always been piss-artists. It dulls the pain of the winter gloom for one.

    Here’s how bad it is:

    About five years ago I interned with a magic circle law firm in London. We were the great and good of young English academia, all polished and poised for a move into the law. At our first briefing, the personnel officer came down and outlined the day’s activities. After listing our busy schedule she said, “don’t worry, we’re taking you to the pub afterwards so you can get pissed.” Smiles all ’round. These were not the kids from the council estates.


  2. There is definitely more alcoholism in Germany than in the United States. I would expect that this is true of most of Europe. Of course, Europeans might be less likely to use other drugs such as marihuana.


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