The introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol in Scotland is now less than two months away. The policy has provoked a huge amount of controversy, but it has attracted a perhaps surprising supporter in the form of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, the trade body for pubs, clubs and bars in the country. They have been happily regurgitating all the familiar tropes of the anti-drink lobby on Twitter.
But, as I have explained in the past, all of these claims are, at best, highly exaggerated and misleading.
Supermarkets sell alcohol at pocket money prices very often cheaper than water. That is a fact and I told the Westminster Health Committee this. Hopefully England Wales & Ireland will now follow our lead. All Trade Assoc in these countries support MUP. @HospUlster @VFIpubs https://t.co/freH6sB7ZV— The SLTA (@SLTAssociation) February 26, 2018
Selling alcohol at pocket-money prices is a largely meaningless statement, and carries a somewhat offensive insinuation that it is routinely being sold to children. We already have the fourth most expensive alcohol prices in Europe. How high would it need to go before it wasn’t being sold at “pocket-money prices”?
While it is true that it is possible to buy some very cheap beers for less per litre than some very expensive brands of bottled water, as a generalised statement alcohol is cheaper than water is not far short of an outright lie. In my local Tesco, I can buy two litres of fizzy water for 17p. I’d really like to know where I can get beer cheaper than that. It’s about as accurate and meaningful as saying you can buy cars cheaper than pedal cycles.
And the claim that supermarkets are routinely selling alcohol as a loss-leader doesn’t stand up to analysis. I’m not saying it doesn’t ever happen, but it simply makes no economic sense to sell something that makes up a substantial proportion of a shopping basket at a loss. There may be very little margin in those discounted slabs of Carling, but they’re not selling them for less than they paid for them.
The SLTA’s support for MUP might be understandable, if self-serving, if they actually stood to gain from it. But it won’t give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs, and if the price of a can of Carling goes up from 60p to 90p it’s not exactly going to encourage anyone to spend £3.50 on a pint in the pub. Indeed, as Christopher Snowdon argues here, it could even lead to people spending less in pubs if they need to reallocate a fixed budget for spending on alcohol.
Plus, much off-trade alcohol consumption is not readily transferable to pubs anyway. The pensioner enjoying a nightcap of whisky, the family sharing a bottle of wine with their Sunday lunch, or the group of friends cracking open a few cans with their back-garden barbecue aren’t going to suddenly rush down to the pub if it costs more. It’s simply a question of making the everyday pleasures of ordinary people on limited budgets that bit less affordable.
The SLTA’s stance comes across as a nihilistic dog-in-the-manger attitude, taking the view that they have suffered, so why shouldn’t other parts of the drinks trade be made to suffer too? It’s certainly true that the Scottish on-trade has been hit very hard in recent years by the smoking ban and the reduction of the drink-drive limit. But they mounted a pretty feeble opposition to both measures, so in a sense have only themselves to blame. Taking it out on others, though, will achieve no more than a pointless venting of rage. Surely all parts of the drinks trade should take a united stand against the neo-Prohibitionists rather than allowing them to play divide and rule and being treated as useful idiots.
It should also be remembered that the study by the University of Sheffield used to support the policy actually concludes that the most “beneficial” results would come from setting differential minimum prices for on- and off-trades, with that for pubs and bars more than twice as high. Any advantage gained from minimum pricing could turn out to be short-lived, as the spotlight turns to on-trade pricing. And, when the guns of the neo-Prohibitionists are retargeted on the on-trade, the SLTA are likely to find themselves with very little sympathy from a Scottish public who they have been keen to see charged much more for their modest pleasures.
As Winston Churchill famously said, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” And the SLTA are getting very pally with an extremely dangerous reptile. Their stance is one of contemptible hypocrisy and, given that they are vanishingly unlikely to derive any benefit from minimum pricing, utterly delusional.