Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Minimum Alcohol Pricing - Good or Bad?

I read with great interest earlier, this BBC News article about the Coalition Government's plans to bring in a minimum price for alcohol in England and Wales.

In the Coalition Agreement, it was stated that: "We will ban the sale of alcohol below cost price". Ministers are now fleshing out their proposals to make this a reality.

It will work by banning shops and bars from selling drinks for less than the tax paid on them. It is hoped that this will send a signal that the Government is clamping down on the sale of extortionately cheap alcohol.

As the Home Office released table below shows, it works out that a 4.2% can of lager will not be able to be sold for less than 38p, whilst a beer must be sold at about 21p per unit and 28p per spirits which equates to £10.71 for a litre of 37.5% vodka.

Not Enough?
The BBC however reports that Professor Ian Gilmore, of the Royal College of Physicians stated on Radio 4 that this isn't enough. He said: "It's a step in the right direction but I have to say, it's an extremely small step. It will have no impact whatsoever on the vast majority of cheap drinks sold in supermarkets."

Health campaigners have backed a higher minimum price of 50p per unit minimum to take into account also the cost of production and therefore likewise believe that this initial step doesn't go far enough.

Supermarkets Vs Public Houses
Personally, I'm very pleased to see this planned introduction and see it very much as a 'starting point'.

I've always been greatly frustrated at how cheaply supermarkets often sell alcohol - often delibereately sold as a 'loss leader'.

I've personally been of the opinion that pubs around the locality here in Cardigan and Ceredigion and further afield have often been unfairely tarnished and accused of fueling under-age drinking and irresponsible, anti-social behaviour. Whilst there are no doubt some that do flout the licensing laws, I personally find, as a member of Ceredigion County Council's Licensing Committee, that the vast majority of licensees are responsible and have many safeguards to ensure that all of those who drink in their taverns are legally old enough to do so and do not do so to excess.

For me, it's the ability to buy drinks (or get your friends to buy drinks) at a cheap rate from the local off-license that can often lead to more problems. Again, the vast majority of off-licenses work within the law but if you're a 15 year old wanting to drink a bottle of cider, it's going to be much easier and cheaper to get an older friend to buy the alcohol to drink off the premises than it would be to drink a pint of it, on the premises.

A Step in the Right Direction
So a minimum alcohol pricing policy is certainly a move in the right direction in my mind.

Does it go far enough? Maybe not. But then, introducing such a scheme in itself is a bold move which the previous Labour Government failed to do so we shouldn't expect to make the leap that some capaigners want in one fail swoop.

But by introducing the principle of a minimum alcohol price, it will make it much easier in future to use this as an additional means to try and clamp down on anti-social drinking.

It isn't a one size fits all remedy of course. It is only one component of a much wider strategy that needs to focus on this detrimental aspect of modern living.

But will it make a positive difference? Despite what some may say, I believe it will and I welcome it.


  1. Cheers Mark... I'll have a drink to that....

    I must admit, I rarely drink in a pub these days as its invariably too expensive and the surroundings can be grot.

    Still, the more important drink that I am sure concerns MOST readers of your blog is the cost of petrol and diesel. I saw in the paper the other day that the breakdown of a litre shows that 80p goes to the Govt as duty and VAT and the price just continues to go on up and up.

    I require a car for my work as public transport is too slow and doesnt get me to the places where I go, at the times I need to get there, plus the things I need to take with me, PLUS, Randolf, my dog.

    What is your take on the cost of petrol and diesel as I am currently giving over £30 a week to the Govt. And for what?

    Why dont they allow the price of cigarettes go up at the same rate?

    Petrol is a necessity for all of us to get to work and live, whereas cigarettes are not a necessity and they still kill thousands...

  2. While I understand the idea behind the policy, it's pretty illiberal and the sort of policy we would have expected to see from Labour (though obviously not in this case) - a heavy handed approach which completely misses the crux of the issue; the social habits surrounding alcohol.

    If such a policy was to be done well, the minimum price would have to be set much higher than it is. The low minimum being set by the government will have such a negligible effect (some research seems to suggest it may actually increase consumption slightly in certain demographics - http://bit.ly/gcgG5J) that it is nothing short of a waste of time, energy and money enforcing it. Regardless, I disagree with the policy whether it's done properly or not (and this policy certainly is not.)

  3. We got rid of labour because they kept forcing stupid nannying rubbish like this on us. There's no need for this. Governments shouldn't be setting minimum prices for anything.

  4. I have a bit of a long response to your blogpost here, as I'm strongly against any minimum alcohol pricing.

    Firstly, it seems very unfair, as it directly effects those who have the least money and are buying the cheapest alcohol.
    Having first hand experience as a student, with no income of my own, I want to be able to be able to sit at home and have a drink with my friends. Here in Germany, I often buy cheap German Riesling and rosé wine, as it tastes good, unlike the more expensive whites or red wines which have an unpalatable taste and can be too dry.
    I currently pay about £1.70 for a bottle at about 12%, but wine in the supermarkets starts at around 75p per bottle. Compared that more realistic cost to the enforced £2.03 per bottle being suggested here. Unless the entirety of Europe is selling alcohol as a loss leader (and unlikely, as these prices compare well to the low cost of drinks in pubs here as well), then minimum alcohol pricing as high as is being suggested is just a tax on the poor - and even if it's not a "tax" on the poor, that's exactly what it's going to look like to ordinary people.

    Secondly it's simply not going to have any effect on binge drinkers or drink-related crime. Drinking is not illegal. To make it illegal would be very illiberal. We can advise people the effect of excessive drinking on their health, but it should be up to the individual to make an informed decision as to whether to drink. Furthermore, if people want to drink, but they have to pay, say, two times as much for a bottle of wine, they're still going to buy it.

    On under-age drinking, I think it's important to remember that drinking above the age of 5 is legal in one's own home, and to reflect on the culture of France, Germany and the Mediterranean countries, where responsible under-age drinking has a positive effect in terms of reducing both under-age binge drinking, as well as youth binge drinking. We shouldn't be so quick to condemn the 14-15 year-olds buying cider, when the problem could be that they're not allowed to drink at home.

  5. I'm afraid I cannot agree with you on this one Mark. It is illiberal, denies people the ability take responsibility for their own actions and, perhaps most importantly, it will not work. Unless the price hike is huge it won't stop the irresponsible drinkers anyway.

  6. Funny how in Scotland the Lib Dems didn't show the political will to support it, instead preferring to side with Labour and the Tories to give the SNP another nose bleed despite the overwhelming support fpr the measure from health experts. Party point scoring obviously more important than health.


  7. Sion, the political will of liberals is likely to be opposed to this, because it is illiberal - it takes away people's choice and responsibility for their own actions. Well done to the Scottish Lib Dems. It is hardly party point scoring.

    Yes, some people support this, and health experts are likely to support something that restricts the possible damage of alcohol by making it more expensive. While I am not Scottish and haven't looked up the failed SNP policy, the one by the UK government has been criticised by health experts for likely having zero impact on alcohol consumption. However, liberals (with some exceptions) should be opposed because of it being an imposition of the state on free citizens.

  8. @Andrew: petrol is not a necessity for me to get to work, nor to live. It does, however make my life easier. Also, if we assume that a packet of 20 cigarettes costs £6.50 then that is £1.30 in VAT, £2.38 in cigarette duty and 54p (the 24% of retail price) with these figures assuming the tobacconist does not make a profit. That means that a smoker is investing £4.22 every single day, the equivalent of 7.158 litres of petrol (at 58.95p/litre). A Ford Fiesta gets 49.6 mpg which, for the same tax bill as a 20-a-day smoker could do 78.1 miles per day. To me it seems that smokers are doing alright for themselves, and for others, especially given that they pay £1,540.30 in (additional/'voluntary') tax per year and if we assume that they smoke for 45 years puts £69,313.50 into the governments coffers. Speaking of coughing, I think that it would more than pay for their treatment and so they're adding a bit extra for the rest of us. Let's leave of them, shall we, since they're keeping our tax bills down.

  9. A full-on political debate on my blog! Excellent!

    Sion - In all fairness, Rob is right on this in that liberals per-se are going to be instinctively against this for legitimate reasons. In this case, it's me that is the odd one out!

    So the Scottish Lib Dems have actually more than likely stuck with the moral of their liberal convictions up there.

    I'm a liberal to the core and you'll rarely find me supporting a policy that may go against that grain but this is one of the few. Another one is compulsory voting which it can also be legitimately said is illiberal but is something that I personally support.

    But that's another debate!

  10. It is fine to have an ideology. Then you don't need thinking.
    There is a lot of talking about personal freedom. What about my freedom when the alcohol industry forces me to pay a life long the huge alcohol related social costs? The World Health Organization has mentioned that we all are Passive Drinkers. We all suffer from the harm of alcohol consumption. Taxes are ridiculous low.
    Everybody is free to consume according to its income. Drinking alcohol is not a human right. It is better to fight for jobs with an income which enables everybody to live a decent life, instead of giving cheap alcohol to keep the poor calm and down.
    What about my personal freedom, when the media do not give the necessary information I need to discuss this matter and ask for the right measures to be taken by the government, because they are alcohol lobbyists? Did you know that in May 2010 the World Health Organization accepted with all 193 votes of the member states a resolution on a global alcohol strategy? In it the alcohol related harm on society and the evidence based measures for harm reduction are listed. Governments only had to implement those proposals, but instead they try everything which wouldn't harm the alcohol industry. The industry keeps the profit, society pays the social costs in money and in life, etc.

  11. htmeyer, with all due respect, that's not what ideology is about, at least not if the reason you have an ideology is because you believe it is the overall best one to base society on. Individual cases regardless (as Mark makes aware, very few people will be purely ideological about everything) I'm a liberal because I believe that freedom and personal responsibility are things that we are by far worse off without. Freedom makes us who we are, for better or worse.

    Some disagree, and I have no issue with that, but I am not against this policy through lack of thinking; it is exactly because I've considered it that I can say that I think a liberal approach to the issue is best.

    Of course there are social costs associated with alcohol, but unlike most activities which cause negative externalities, such as smoking, alcohol consumption itself does not necessarily lead to social costs under all circumstances. It is the abuse of alcohol which is an issue, which, while perhaps worse in the UK than many other places in the world, does not mean alcohol consumption itself is a problem.

    As Linden has said, in many European countries it is relatively normal to allow a child to have a drink at home. This is something that is not as accepted over here, and this, I imagine, is one of (though there are many) reasons behind our attitude towards drink when we are finally able to get our hands on it.

    Drinking alcohol is no more a human right than many things we do. But I also don't think picking my nose with a sharp pencil or taking part in certain kinky activities is necessarily a human right either. It not being a human right does not matter to the debate on whether a minimum price should be set or not.

    I think we would have much more success if our education surrounding alcohol (and other drugs) was improved, rather than setting a very useless as well as illiberal policy.

    My views on the issue may be based on liberalism, but it is because I believe illiberal policies are usually counter-productive (and in this case quite obviously so) that I hold the views I do. I think that shows as much thinking as anyone.

  12. A needless authoritarian measure in my opinion.

    I can't think of anything worse than the state enforcing it's own opinion / ideology on the people. Also trying to enforce some sort of faux morality that they have decided upon. It just isn't right.

    People should be able to have the liberty to make their own decision, and for businesses to make their own choices on pricing.

    People aren't drinking alcohol just because it's cheap, there obviously has to be a reason - I would hazard a guess that they are unhappy people, that are tired of being told what they can and can't do (being treated like children). Or people that are unhappy with their life (ie high taxes, being told what to do). I don't think any problems are going to be solved with this measure.

    There is also the issue of this pricing - introducing an artificial floor on price, although I admit it is a low floor at the moment, it is still one, and a BIG issue in my opinion. It's anti-competition, and is creeping minimum pricing, which only leads to less competition, less choice, higher prices and unhappier people.

    I tried to find a good hard hitting Thomas Jefferson quote to end, I didn't quite fine one, so here is a different one -

    "One of the greatest delusions in the world is the hope that the evils in this world are to be cured by legislation".
    – Thomas B. Reed (1886)

    @roberthardware - I agree, and you have some good points there. I was thinking the same thing about the youth drinking thing (for example in Germany, they ease you in with un-distilled drinks allowed at 16).