Reflecting further on the proposals for minimum alcohol pricing, it seems to me that this is a policy whose objectives haven’t been clearly thought through. It’s often described as a means of combating “binge-drinking”, although whether it will really make any difference to the number of people consuming the three pints or the equivalent at a sitting that now qualifies in official parlance as a “binge” is highly questionable.
As I have stated on here in the past, there are two separate “alcohol problems” in this country – drink-related violence and disorder, generally at weekends in large towns and cities, and health problems caused by excessive consumption over the long term. There is an overlap between the two, but to a large extent they are very different issues that need different responses. The biggest thing they have in common is that the extent of both is much overstated.
To listen to many politicians talking, minimum pricing is a key way of tackling alcohol-related disorder, which seems peculiar when it is a measure that will almost exclusively affect the off-trade, and the people brawling and puking in the streets have generally just come out of bars. “Ah yes”, the argument goes, “but the big problem is pre-loading and it will put a stop to that.” It always seems a perverse form of logic to blame the first drink people had rather than the last for the state they end up in. While obviously a considerable amount of pre-loading does go on, I tend to feel it takes an exaggerated share of the blame, and even in its absence it is fanciful to imagine that folks would sit around in well-behaved groups sipping at Jaipur and Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and setting the world to rights.
I also get the impression that, for many young people, meeting up at someone’s house for a few drinks (and, it must be said, a few smokes) before hitting the town has now become an integral part of the weekend ritual, and it will take far more than a bit of fiddling with the price of Glen’s Vodka to deter them from doing it.
If anything, minimum pricing comes across as a measure specifically targeted at less well-off people who drink at home, most of them perfectly responsibly. If the government don’t really know what it’s supposed to achieve in the first place, how can they judge its success? Of course, if the Labour Party had any balls, or retained any genuine sympathy for the working classes, they could strongly attack it on that basis. So don’t hold your breath, then.
A further point is that, in the off-trade at least, minimum pricing would pretty much entirely cancel out the effect of low strength relief and high strength beer duty. There will be little point in buying low-strength beers if they no longer have any price advantage over their higher-strength competitors (except in the general sense that weaker=cheaper), while HSBD has already raised the typical price of super-strength lagers to about 40p/unit, so minimum pricing will just bring other beers into line. A classic example of two government policies ending up with crossed wires.
There’s an interesting post here by Dick Puddlecote about the legal minefield that the minimum pricing plans have waded into.