Alcohol, minimum pricing and the right to drink
I’m glad to see the Conservative government is opposed to a minimum price law on alcohol. As I said last time this issue came up, I am opposed to such a law on the grounds that people should be allowed to drink to excess if they wish. I rejected the argument that the social costs of the related ill-health and crime justifies government intervention.
The issue has recently flared up because Tesco came out to support a minimum pricing system, and because NICE has subsequently also come out for a minimum price per unit of alcohol. What few enough people noticed when Tesco came out for the law is that this view is self-interested; it will mean they no longer have to worry about cutting prices.
Currently many supermarkets sell alcohol for less than it is worth to them – it brings customers into the store and, so the theory goes, customers will buy other goods which are sold for a profit. A minimum price on alcohol eliminates this practice, as the minimum would almost certainly be well above the cut prices of supermarkets.
To give an example of how this work, Professor Anne Ludbrook, one of the authors of the NICE report, said the following:
“At the example price of 50 pence, a bottle of vodka would be just over £13. Whereas in the supermarkets currently you could find vodka selling at below £8. Cheap white cider, for example, would go up to over £7 a bottle. It’s currently selling at about £2.” [BBC]
In the case of the cider and vodka, that’s £5 per bottle which covers the amount supermarkets used to write off as a loss, to get customers into the store, and probably adds a healthy profit to the sale as well. The minimum pricing would also eliminate the need for supermarkets to compete; they could just sell everything for the minimum price.
Self-interest beats outright misinformation, however, which is where the drinks industry have put their faith.
Simon Litherland of Diageo GB said: “Yet again it is disappointing to see continued support for minimum pricing despite no credible empirical evidence that it would be an effective measure in reducing alcohol-related harm.”
Andrew Opie, food policy director at the British Retail Consortium, said: “It’s too simplistic to say the UK’s alcohol problems are down to price.
“Irresponsible alcohol consumption is primarily a cultural issue that needs to be addressed through education and information.”
There is evidence, from studies prepared for the Scottish Parliament, as it debated minimum pricing laws that a) price increases do correlate to decreased demand, b) that binge dringers, young drinkers and harmful drinkers all choose cheaper drinks and will be hit by minimum pricing laws and c) that increased taxation and prices do reduce harm.
All of which escapes the point I raised the last time, that the people who are likely to be affected by drinks with an enforced minimum price will be poor people. People who can’t afford to pay £13 instead of £8 for a bottle of vodka. Or, the examples which I raised last time, minimum £6 for a bottle of pinot or a couple of six packs of lager.
My query is, why should they have to? We don’t routinely tax or look down upon any number of practices which cost the NHS and other social services money. Why should alcohol be different?
If it is the social effects of binge drinking we want to combat, then challenging the culture that our cities inspire with ever decreasing number of social places except pubs would be a start. So would challenging the culture of silence around things like domestic violence, or educating people in safe practices to protect against rape.
Meanwhile, NICE can get off their high horse, from which they claim that alcohol consumption problems, including 15,000 direct deaths, cost the NHS £2 bn per year. Which is awesome, because the taxes levied on alcohol bring in well over £5 bn per year. If the government wants more revenue, to devote to social purposes like making our cities sociable once more, they can get it from the breweries, and end the monopolistic practices which drive our pubs to seek high-turnover rather than a social clientele.