Arguing the toss, spiked style

This week: should there be a minimum price for a unit of alcohol?

Alcohol is too cheap.

Funny, I never think that on a Friday night.

But it is, you know. You can go to a supermarket and buy a three-litre bottle of Frosty Jack cider for £3.50. It’s 7.5 per cent alcohol. Five men could drink their daily recommended allowance of booze from one bottle.

Frosty Jack, you say? Must write that down.

And then there’s V-Kat, which is supposedly schnapps. It’s 22.5 per cent alcohol and you can get a bottle for about seven quid.

Keep talking, this is all valuable information for when I’m broke but fancy getting a good buzz.

You’re not taking this seriously.

I am. This could be life-enhancing intelligence.

The point is that people are drinking themselves into oblivion on this stuff, starting fights, beating up their partners, developing liver disease, dying an unnecessarily early death.
It’s true. There are lots of problems associated with excessive drinking. But jacking up the price of Frosty Jack isn’t the answer.

Oh really? Well according to researchers at Sheffield University, putting a minimum price per unit on alcohol would save 860 lives per year in the UK. 860! That’s incredible!
You’re right. It is incredible, just not in the way that you mean. That Sheffield lot get rolled out every so often to make such claims, but their figures are based on a model with the most ludicrous assumptions. The same people even embarrassed BBC Panorama a couple of years ago because they got their own maths wrong. Most obviously, they assume that if prices are put up, everyone will drink less, but particularly hardened drinkers. I wouldn’t assume that at all.

Why not?

If you really can’t face a night without being blotto, you’ll find ways around higher prices. You’ll buy smuggled or bootleg booze, for example, or you could just eat less food. Alcoholics are not renowned for their lack of persistence when it comes to finding a drink.

Or imagine you’re a young person with £20 to spend on a night out. You know that drinking in a pub or club is a lot more expensive than at home, so you have a quarter bottle of vodka in the house and a couple of expensive drinks when you’re out. If the price of booze in the supermarket goes up, it doesn’t mean you’ll think ‘Oh well, might as well just spend it in the pub’. Instead, you’ll drink even more at home and even less in the club so you get the same level of intoxication. Or you will just drink cheaper brands. There are so many ways around this policy.

Any barriers to drinking must surely help reduce the damage from alcohol.

The Scottish government is talking about a minimum price per unit of 50 pence. In Westminster, they are talking about 45 pence. I’ll bet 50 quid that if it is ever implemented, minimum pricing won’t have much effect so the minimum prices will soon rise to 60 pence or 70 pence. At 70 pence per unit, a bog standard bottle of wine would cost at least £7. That means everyone would be hurt by minimum pricing, including the vast majority of us who don’t have a drinking problem.

If people drink moderately, it won’t be a problem.

Well, it will cost everyone money. Even the well-off who like a nice drop of Beaujolais or whatever will find the price of booze going up. If you make a premium brand and suddenly the cheap stuff is the same price, what are you going to do? You’ll stick your price up, too.

But the people who will really be hit hard are the less well-off.  Middle-class commentators may be sniffy about those who drink Frosty Jack or Special Brew, but at the moment even someone on benefits can enjoy a reasonable drink without breaking the bank. And that’s the real thinking behind minimum pricing. This is a kind of prohibition to stop the ‘wrong’ people getting drunk. It’s snobbery, plain and simple, dressed up in the language of public health.

Prohibition? Oh don’t be ridiculous.

Well, what is the aim of the policy if not to stop people from drinking? Sure, it’s not the kind of prohibition seen in 1920s America, but the effect will be – once they’ve shunted the price up enough – to stop people drinking as much or to stop them drinking altogether. Not the ‘hardened’ drinker that the policy is aimed at. They’ll get round it. This will particularly hurt the hard-up who like a tipple. It’s the government deciding for us what our pleasures should be.

But you said yourself that there were real problems with drinking today.

Yes, though they are almost always exaggerated. But they are not resolvable by fiddling with the price! If someone is really determined to get hammered on a regular basis, isn’t it worth asking why that might be? Unfortunately, those problems can’t be resolved by central government diktat or by hurting the vast majority who don’t have a booze problem.

In fact, alcohol is already far too expensive thanks to the taxes put on it, as quickly becomes apparent when you go to a country like France or Spain, where you can get a decent drop of wine for half the price it is in the UK. The duty on a 70cl bottle of spirits is £7.90. The first £2 of a bottle of wine is tax. Every drink we buy, we have to part with amazing quantities of cash. I think alcoholism and booze-fuelled violence are unpleasant, but sin taxes cause even more harm.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.

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