Labour should back moves to a minimum price for alcohol

by Sally Bercow

This week, the government unveiled plans to introduce a minimum price for alcohol for the first time. Admittedly, the minimum price they’ve set (duty plus VAT) is way too low to have any real impact – either on the price of drinks or on alcohol abuse – but it’s a start.

The new rules do at least establish the principle of minimum alcohol pricing and, with a bit of luck, the government might be persuaded to get tougher over time and steadily up the minimum price per unit until it reaches 50p (it works out at 21p per unit of beer, 28p per unit of spirits at the moment) – which is the level recommended by a vast array of health professionals. Don’t hold your breath though: the Tories aren’t exactly known for standing up to big business – and big businesses the supermarkets and the UK drinks industry sure are.

Politicians know that something has to be done, though. Easy access to cheap booze is killing us as never before. The number of people reporting consumption of harmful levels of alcohol is increasing; around a third of men and a fifth of women report drinking more than the weekly recommendations. Society bears the burden of alcohol misuse – the antisocial behaviour, drunk drivers and domestic violence that ensue. Alcohol accounted for five per cent of all deaths in 2005 and its impact costs the NHS around £3 billion a year. Drink wreaks misery and havoc on families and communities. There can be no doubt that action is long overdue.

Unfortunately, the government’s new minimum price is so low it’s all but useless. Supermarkets will still be able to pull in the punters by selling drinks dirt cheap (as there’s no legal obligation to cover other costs, such as production, they can still use alcohol as a loss-leader). You’ll be able to pick up a can of weak lager for 38p or a can of cider for around 20p – positively a bargain compared with a can of Coke (60p). A bottle of wine could still pass through the checkout for just over £2, or a bottle of spirits for about £8. As the campaign for real ale observed: “pubs will continue to close as they are undercut by supermarkets selling cans of beer at pocket-money prices”.

What is really needed are measures that go further – first and foremost a meaningful minimum price per unit. Because, as over 100 academic studies have shown, the most effective way to tackle irresponsible drinking is to make alcohol less affordable; to push up the cost of the cheapest drinks (because, for obvious reasons, it’s the cheapest drinks that hardcore drinkers favour). This would save thousands of lives (around 3,000 per year), dramatically reduce hospital admissions (by 98,000 per year) and hugely improve our health as a nation. Minimum pricing is a practical approach that can help to kickstart a fundamental cultural change.

“Aaaah, but a minimum price penalises us”, cry the moderate drinkers. “Ouch”, add those who struggle to make ends meet as it is. However, neither group need fret. A minimum price of 50p per unit won’t raise the price of all drinks. Rather, it would target the cheap supermarket ciders, lagers and low-grade spirits favoured by problem and underage drinkers (the price of a bottle of vodka would rise to just over £13, a standard bottle of wine would cost £4.50 and a typical pint of beer would be on sale for £1 minimum).

Alcohol would remain affordable for moderate drinkers; indeed, they would hardly notice a difference (their drinks bill would increase by just £12 a year, whereas someone drinking at harmful levels would pay £163 a year more, according to researchers at Sheffield University). Pubs would also benefit because, while their prices would be largely unaffected, less cheap alcohol would be drunk at home (most pubs already price drinks at well over 50p per unit).

It will be illuminating to see what position Labour will take. We have a proud record on public health and haven’t shied away from taking radical action – most notably, introducing the groundbreaking smoking ban. Nonetheless, when the Scottish government tried (unsuccessfully) last year to introduce minimum alcohol pricing legislation, it was disappointing to see Labour opposing it and promulgating the myth that it was a tax on the moderate-drinking poor. (It being an SNP policy presumably didn’t endear it to Labour MSPs either).

The reality is that advocating a meaningful minimum price is essential in tackling our alcohol culture and improving the nation’s health and quality of life. Labour should be bold enough to advocate it. It is time to reclaim our place at the vanguard of public health.

Sally Bercow is a Labour activist and freelance writer and broadcaster.


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9 Responses to “Labour should back moves to a minimum price for alcohol”

  1. Robert says:

    Alcohol is addictive, yes?

    We all accept that?

    And then “I do not drink to excess – I do not need to cut down my alcohol consumption – it doesn’t cause me any problems.”

    Yes?

    Bad news for you, buster – you are already addicted!

  2. Fenner Pearson says:

    This all makes sense to me except why this seems to be such a British problem.

    In Shakespeare Cassio asks “Is you Englishman so expert in his drinking?” and Iago’s response implies this is not a new feature of our national character.

    Why doesn’t this problem occur in countries that have cheaper drink prices that us? Or is that a myth? Or are we trying to mend a cultural problem with a market solution?

    Fenner.

  3. Dan says:

    Almost impossible to enforce. Never mind that, even if barriers were overcome, it’s unpopular and likely to achieve the opposite of the desired effect.

    Let’s start with enforcement. There’s an admission in paragraph six that it can only work fairly by targeting “cheap supermarket ciders, lagers and low-grade spirits”. Well, what does that mean? What exactly constitutes “cheap”? What constitutes “supermarket”? Do we mean own-brand or lager of any brand sold in a supermarket? For that matter, what constitutes a “supermarket” at all? Are we going to have to work out square-footage (as in our ridiculous Sunday trading laws) and apply minimum pricing accordingly?

    And how low will “low-grade” be set? And how does that help? So a bottle of Diamond White will go up in price while a bottle of triple-filtered, triple distilled vodka remains stable or goes down.

    Next: unpopular. So we’re seeing inflation rising and VAT just risen, and you want to further artificially inflate the price of a popular good?

    Which brings us to unintended consequences. Whom will this benefit? Poor people who drink, by your definition, “responsibly”? Well, clearly not. They’ll just end up having to cut back in other areas. Very possibly on goods you’d designate as “healthy”.

    Poor but “irresponsible” drinkers, especially the really desperate, such as the homeless? Will they think “oh right, can’t afford a bottle of Thunderbirds this week, better get a pound and a half of carrots and a tub of low-fat yoghurt, instead”? Or will they turn to alternative means of both chemical relaxation AND the method for funding it?

    The only people who really benefit from minimum alchohol pricing are large, expensive brewers who will see their profits rise as the unique selling point of cheaper alcohol (it’s cheapness) is wiped out and quality becomes the only differentiator.

    Alcohol is subject to price elasticity of demand. Demand for it does not respond in the usual way to price hikes. There is no drop in demand.

    If you want people to drink less then educate and campaign by all means. But let’s not make a bad but manageable situation much worse and unmanageable with what amounts to a sort of prohibition-lite.

  4. candalousbill says:

    Sally,

    I do not share the view that the introduction of an increasing sliding scale form of economic temperance is effective for tackling problems of alcoholism. The policy you advocate only touches on these problems as a backwash or side effect. The roots of binge drinking and alcoholism seem to me to be much deeper and more serious than you describe.

    IMHO, alcoholics do not become alcoholics simply because liquor is cheap. The adverse effects of alcohol consumption are equally prevalent in a well aged single malt or vintage champagne as they are in Bacardi Breezers or high octane lager. The problem is not the drink, it is the person. Is it any more acceptable for a well heeled individual to drink excessively than for those of modest means?
    To consider an overall raising of the price of booze as an “essential” tool in health policy, merely reflects a decided class bias of your advocated approach, not to mention its paternalism. Moreover, I believe that raising the price of booze will simply cause those who are problem drinkers to simply spend more, not drink less, regardless of the impacts on families and friends. The more troubled their economic situation, the greater the potential for adverse impacts in these cases. Incidentally, the position that moderate drinkers will feel only a slight economic impact from price rises is rather spurious. An abstainer would experience zero impact, set aside from any reason to justify government regulation of their behaviour. Put bluntly, you are not saving these people from themselves.
    The so called evidence that has been offered in support of economic temperance is, from what I have seen, not convincing. They pay little attention to individual’s personal change, i.e. how many problem drinkers have cut down or quit drinking as a casual effect of imposed temperance, but rely on overall consumption figures which do not adequately reflect the switch to alternative highs such as drugs or contraband liquor. The stories of |Russian people going blind, etc. from bootleg vodka are not fabrications.

    It would seem to me that if Labour wishes to establish effective health policies to deal with these problems they should attack problem drinking with policies that are effective for problem drinking. The essential tenant of the approach should be a lessons learned type of review of existing measures, policies and support successes and failures to establish effective initiatives tailored to the issues, as opposed to reflection on overall consumption. Your position simply provides a short-hand method to paper over the cracks.

    BTW I have had family members and friends who have suffered and died from the effects of alcohol abuse.

  5. I assume that, as you have stopped following me on Twitter due to my opposition to this proposal, you won’t have seen the blogpost I wrote where I explained why I found your arguments to be patronising, judgemental and facile.

    It’s here: http://fortyshadesofgrey.blogspot.com/2011/01/binge-britain.html

    If you could take the time to read it and get back to me, I’d appreciate your thoughts.

    Also, I wrote a post about Dorries yesterday which you may appreciate more.

  6. oliver says:

    Aside from, literally, a couple of drinks every Christmas, I’ve not been a drinker for the best part of 15 years. I just don’t enjoy drinking now and, to be honest, I literally can’t afford to be a social drinker in pubs. I’ll also be up-front enough to admit that I loathe people drinking in public. Where I live, every other person seems to have a can of beer or cider in their hands in the day time. Most of the pubs have now closed here but I also used to be tired of the mayhem that evenings caused, particularly after closing time. I’m also conscious of the fact that many regular drinkers – at least amongst the people I know – are in a mess physically.

    That said, even though the above makes me sound like a Victorian Temperance activist, I’m still not sure I can support this or not. Ultimately, this is only going to hit those at the bottom of society’s already unfair hierarchy, many of whom are already being disproportionately shafted by this Tory-led government as it is. They have already been priced out of pubs, and wouldn’t meet bouncer approval for club admittance, even if they could afford entry and bar prices. If pub prices carry-on as they are, then it’s irrelevant as it’s unlikely that they’ll pull-in this demographic as most of them couldn’t afford to drink in pubs in the first place at present prices.

    Without wishing to be patronising, merely observing on the people I know or see around me daily, if you take alcohol away from them, it’s unlikely that they’ll fill that void with anything meaningful or healthy. That beer money won’t be spent on organic broccoli or on gym membership. It’s more likely it’s going to be spent on cheap frozen pizzas, chips or into the pockets of local dealers: swapping one door to oblivion for another. I wish that wasn’t the case but from what I see where I live, it’s hard to see how this won’t happen.

    Regarding the cost of alcohol-related illness to the NHS, is this going to be an issue for much longer? Without wanting to sound too glib, I’m genuinely wondering whether treatment will be there for many of these people in the future anyway.

  7. theProle says:

    I wish people understood how irrelevant the price of drink is.

    It’s like petrol. The price keeps going up, the amount we moan about it keeps going up, but national consumption remains pretty much unchanged.

    Beer will be just the same. The poor (most people with alcohol problems are) will drink the same, and have less money for other things. In addition, given that a lot of this stuff is bought with the proceeds of petty crime, guess what will happen – yep, more muggings, burglaries etc. Also, as prices rise, people will look at cheaper alternatives; expect more people going blind from drinking methylated spirits for example.

    All a minimum price will do is take money from the poor, and give it to supermarkets. Great. Just what the country needs.

  8. Mrs Bercow is promoting more scare tactics against alcohol, we need a responsible drinking attitude like the French. Rather than whip up more hysteria about the dangers of alcohol, we should embrace it as something that can be enjoyed, but in moderation.

    T

  9. Rawr says:

    “You’ll be able to pick up a can of weak lager for 38p or a can of cider for around 20p – positively a bargain compared with a can of Coke (60p)”

    You are not comparing like with like. Cheap, unbranded items costing less than branded items? Why, that’s unheard of!

    It smacks of dishonesty. If you can’t make your case without presenting distorted evidence (e.g. comparing unbranded items with branded) then it’s probably a weak case to begin with.

    And if you’d ever actually known any alcoholics or problem drinkers, then you’d know that if you give them a choice between their only meal of the day or alcohol, then they’ll not always go for the meal. Raising the price of alcohol just makes that dilemma arise more frequently, which of course has further health-related consequences for the problem drinkers as they’ll no longer be eating as regularly.

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