Thursday, 14 January 2010

Boiling a frog in wine

I have to say in the two weeks since the New Year there has been such a torrent of neo-prohibitionist nonsense in the media that I have begun to suffer from “bansturbation fatigue” and struggle to summon up any fresh reserves of outrage. Pete Brown is doing an excellent job of countering it on his blog, though.

But the report in today’s Telegraph that the government have had a change of heart and are planning after all to introduce minimum alcohol pricing cannot be allowed to pass without comment.

It is understood that ministers are working on a “staged process” to introduce minimum pricing. Initially, the drinks industry will have to increase warnings on alcohol cans and bottles. Supermarkets and other retailers will then be banned from selling alcohol at “below cost” – the wholesale price of drinks – if they refuse to do so voluntarily.

The minimum price will then be introduced as the third and final phase of the scheme. It is being introduced in this way to “bring the public along” as alcohol prices are steadily increased.

So, like the proverbial boiling frog, you introduce it stealthily, step by step, and hope the drinking public won’t notice they are being screwed.

It has to be said that “minimum pricing” isn’t a one-size-fits-all policy – it all depends on where the minimum price is set. The typical price of mainstream off-trade alcohol is around 35-40p per unit. So a 35p per unit minimum price would only affect cheap bottom-end products and multibuy deals, whereas 50p would penalise most at-home drinkers.

Health Secretary Andy Burnham is quoted as saying:
There is rising public concern and we have never shrunk from taking tough public health decisions and we are not going to start now. We need to balance the rights of people who drink responsibly with those who buy ludicrously cheap booze and go out and harm themselves and others.
So are a £1.10 half-litre can of Stella, a £4 bottle of wine or a £12 bottle of whisky “ludicrously cheap”? Because those are things that will be outlawed by a 50p minimum price.

I have discussed in the past the various problems associated with minimum pricing. But of course, the biggest problem is that it’s unlikely to achieve the claimed effect (even if that effect were in fact desirable). And, of course, when it is seen not to work, we will set out down another slippery slope.

It is also typical of the sloppy standards of journalism that the Telegraph article is illustrated with a picture of three drunk girls staggering down a street, who one would assume have been drinking in licensed premises and paying over 50p per unit. Apart from arguably putting a slight brake on “pre-loading”, minimum pricing will do nothing to stop alcohol-related town centre disorder.


  1. Good spot.

    But in any case nothing will happen before the election - hopefully we won't end up with a bidding war on who can be toughest on alcohol.

  2. Why are they rushing ahead with all this nonsense when they're going to be thrown out in 4-5 months time?

    Or it it that the Conservatives are on board to do exactly the same when they take over?

  3. Why are people so short sighted? These tactics have been tried again and again, over generations, in various countries and they have never resulted in a reduction in alcohol related harm. Why can't they see that? The evidence is there to see, not only in the UK, but in the Baltic states, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia.

    Price inflation has never reduced alcohol consumption anywhere it has been tried. You might get a short term lull in sales, but that comes back up as soon as people get used to the new price. In extreme circumstances you end up with a reduction in sales, but an increase in smuggling and home made alcohol. The neo-prohibitionists then point to sales data and claim the drop as evidence it works, despite the lack of a corresponding drop in alcohol related harm figures.

    Countries with more expensive alcohol are actually more likely to have a culture of binge drinking and pre-loading than places with cheap alcohol. The temperance movement has always had a simplistic view of alcohol, because they don't understand it. Their meddling in other peoples lives has, in my opinion, been one of the major factors in creating the poor attitude to alcohol in the countries I listed earlier.

  4. I suspect any price fixing will not happen until after the election. I still think it will come in some form, unfortunately

  5. Given the current climate, it's probably more likely than not that we will see minimum pricing within the next five years. But, as I've said, it has a hugely different effect depending on whether it's set below or above the typical price of off-trade alcohol.

    I'm very confident in saying that:

    (a) it won't significantly reduce overall alcohol consumption
    (b) it will have a huge raft of unintended consequences, and
    (c) it won't do anything to encourage people back into pubs

    And, as someone who splits his drinking between pubs and premium bottled products, it is unlikely to affect me personally in the slighest. I do buy some stuff below 50p/unit (those pesky supermarket offers), but increasing the price to that level won't really make any difference to my overall consumption.


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