The petty prohibitionism of minimum pricing

The Supreme Court’s ruling that Scotland’s minimum-unit-pricing of alcohol is legal is bad news, giving the green light to an illiberal and wrongheaded policy.

Minimum pricing is designed to deter people from drinking – not because they choose not to, but because it is too expensive for them to do so. The initial price-hike will mean a minimum of 50 pence-per-unit. This will drastically increase the price of the very cheapest alcohol (like strong cider), but it will also make beer, wine and spirits more expensive. Those with the least money will be forced to drink less, or cut back on other things in order to drink. For the rest of us, minimum pricing will simply be an inconvenience – a wee bit more cash lifted from our pockets.

However, it is naive to think that the minimum price will stay at 50 pence-per-unit. When the policy inevitably fails to have any significant effect on drinking, we can expect that price to rise. There has already been modelling done on a price of 70 pence-per-unit – making even the cheapest, plonkiest regular-strength bottle of wine rise to £7-per-bottle, for example.

In the name of tackling serious drinking, this policy hits everyone in the pocket. But the truth is that problem drinkers will simply carry on drinking, finding ways to continue their habit while the rest of us pay more. We can expect to see so-called booze cruises to England (at least until the government down south decides to take up the policy, too), rising sales of bootleg booze, and changing habits – more drinking at home and less in the pubs. Anyone seriously determined to get a drink will find creative ways to work around the new pricing.

One claim by campaigners is that this will ‘help the poor’, who are disproportionately more likely to suffer from alcohol-induced ill-health. How making poor people poorer will improve health is a real head-scratcher. This is typical of the missionary attitude of public-health zealots – imposing policies that poor people don’t want ‘for their own good’.

Neither will minimum pricing do anything to solve the problem of weekend revellers ending up in A&E – bars already charge way above the minimum price. Instead, this new policy will target those trying to relax with a cheap drink at home.

Scotland’s politicians will be triumphant, trumpeting that they are leading the way in tackling the problem with alcohol. Other countries will quickly follow suit. And we can all expect to be worse off, while problem drinking remains largely unaffected. Minimum pricing is a form of prohibition delivered by politicians, medics and campaigners who treat the rest of us as objects to be manipulated, rather than thinking citizens who can make choices for ourselves. Who wants to raise a glass to that?

Rob Lyons is a spiked columnist.

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