Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Double bonus

Last Friday saw the welcome abandonment of two unpopular and illiberal government proposals in one day – minimum alcohol pricing and plain tobacco packaging.

Naturally this led to howls of outrage from the Righteous – Dick Puddlecote described them as whining like a 747 approaching Heathrow – and attempts to paint this as a triumph of corporate lobbying. However, in reality it was a victory for ordinary people over a powerful and well-funded health lobby that seeks to dictate ever more closely how we live our lives.

The alcohol industry was in any case divided over minimum pricing, with some companies like Greene King actually supporting the plan. Indeed, in a sense it would just have the result of transferring money from consumers’ pockets to Diageo and AB InBev. But, although the health lobby continued to claim it would not affect ordinary, moderate drinkers, the statistic that a 45p/unit minimum price would hit over 70% of off-trade alcohol units and thus affect a vast number of mainstream voters started to register with the politicians. Not to mention the fact that it’s almost certainly illegal anyway under EU competition law.

It’s certainly true that the tobacco industry did lobby strongly against plain packaging, but their main reason was not that it would cut consumption but that it would involve the effective confiscation of trademarks and brands built up at great expense over many years. There’s no evidence that it would reduce smoking rates, and it’s entirely possible that it could even lead to an increase as customers switch to the cheapest brands and the effective price falls.

But, in total, there were 665,989 responses to the government consultation on the proposals, of whom 427,888, or 64%, were opposed. That’s not something that could be achieved just by organised campaigning by lobby groups – it’s a genuine surge of grass-roots opinion.

All the government have done is to say they need to wait and assess the evidence from Australia before proceeding with the plan. Surely the health lobby wouldn’t want policies implemented on gut feel without any sound evidence base. Would they?

While both decisions have been criticised by the Labour Party, is there any guarantee that Labour would have implemented them if in office? And is it a good idea for the supposed champions of the working man and woman to go into the general election looking like the party that stamps on ordinary people's pleasures?

It will also be amusing to watch Salmond go ahead with his declared intention of trying to implement these policies North of the Border. I foresee a lot of egg on that smug face.

There is an important lesson to be learned from this, that there is nothing inevitable about the advancing tide of Healthist social control, and if you stand up and be counted and put your case across, these measures can be stopped. You may not win every battle, or even most of the battles, but every defeat you inflict creates another chink in the armour. And, even if something is just shelved for the time being, there is every chance that priorities will move on to something else and it will never happen. History is littered with ideas that at one time were regarded as part of the inexorable march of “progress” but are now buried deep in the long grass.


  1. Still no comments? I'm surprised.

    I've been fighting the good fight over at the C4 Fact Check blog, where they've taken a "why oh why, most people supported this sensible health-oriented measure" line.

    I know that some people are sceptical of the 'slippery slope' argument linking tobacco and alcohol, on the basis that restrictions on tobacco don't necessarily or automatically lead to restrictions on alcohol. That's fair enough, but to me it's much more of an argument from principle: if we accept that the government should be able to limit the availability of tobacco because of its harmful effects on the smoker, there's absolutely no reason not to allow the government to limit the availability of alcohol, among much else. And that's really not a world I want to live in.

  2. Couldn't agree more, Phil, I'm very surprised this post hasn't garnered any more comments.

    And various people including Chris Snowdon and Dick Puddlecote have amply demonstrated the enthusiastic take-up of the tobacco control template by the anti-drink lobby, so the slippery slope is plain for all to see.

  3. I’m a bit surprised at the lack of comments, too, given that there’s a fair few antis who visit this site fairly regularly. Maybe the fact of the matter is that even they recognise that plain packaging wouldn’t make one jot of difference to the number of people smoking, and certainly wouldn’t affect their much-loved ban either way.

    But really, Mudge …

    “ … is there any guarantee that Labour would have implemented them if in office?”

    Come on! Of course they would! Labour is completely in thrall to Tobacco Control! Any party which can impose the kind of public smoking ban that we now have with such total, complete and utter disregard for the extraordinarily unpleasant effect which it would have on 25% of the population, and who even now won’t admit that the ban has had a single deleterious effect, would have found implementing plain packaging a walk in the park by comparison. They would have imposed it (and minimum pricing, for that matter) without a moment’s thought. No doubt about it. Thank goodness they’re not in power any more – and that’s coming from someone who’s no great fan of the Tories, either, believe me.

  4. PP was discussed on Newsnight last night. Tim Bell performed well against Emily Maitlis and Sarah Wollaston.

    (Not on BBC i-player as yet)

  5. Would the welfare party increase funding for alcohol concern, considering the nasty tories cut it?


  6. @anon: While I hold no brief for the Labour Party, there are plenty of examples of them proposing things in opposition but when in government coming into contact with a sharp dose of reality. A good example in the last Labour government was cutting the drink-drive limit.

    I recall several Labour ministers, especially Alan Johnson, being critical of minimum pricing.

  7. The slippery slope argument IS ludicrous, but its a matter of principle that the government have no right to interfere in what people put into their own bodies, whether tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, whatever, other than to cover the future costs to the NHS (which is already more than covered by current taxation).

  8. We've had this debate before, but there's loads of evidence that the slippery slope is actually happening in the sense of the tobacco control template being put advanced as an example for alcohol and food policy.

  9. Here is an example of the slippery slope and its ludicrous non-existence. ;)

  10. "Not many comments", well there's not a lot to comment on, apart from to welcome the shelving of these two pieces of proposed nannying legislation.

    Political expediency was the reason why Cameron abandonned plain packaging for cigarettes and minimum pricing for alcohol, although one would hope that the results of the consultation exercise which you mentioned, helped sway things as well.

    Let the righteous cry into their carrot juice, and yes, let us cheer the abandonment of this unwanted and unwelcome attempt by the state to intrude into the lives of its citizens.

  11. It may well be a matter of political expediency (especially as Cameron doesn't really seem to have any principles) but even so scrapping an unpopular and probably ineffective policy makes a lot of sense. The government should make more of the lack of popular support for both policies.

  12. One mans expediency is another man’s populism. The Tories seemed to have figured out that whilst people are concerned about binge drink Britain they do not equate that to a 3 for £10 wine offer in Tesco, and would rather like to keep on with an affordable pleasure, despite the line of much of the booze industry to shift the blame for street trouble from the pubs it occurs outside of to supermarkets it doesn’t. The best labour appear to be able to do is try to use it to get rid of a Tory advisor credited with their new found populism, despite big alcohol being by and large in favour of minimum pricing.

    If I was to predict the next assault on booze pricing, and one that will likely win, it would be the duty differential on cider. About 16% of beer is cask/craft. About 2% of cider is real/artisanal. Most of the big producers have noticed they can flog a lower tax cider and are joining the market. Most of the market is aimed at sweet booze for younger drinkers. A new alcopop storm will brew up soon enough and I suspect cider will be in for a tax hike.

  13. All of the alcopop-type "fruit ciders" are taxed as "made-wines" which actually means they are taxed at a similar level to beer, or possibly even a bit more. I'll have to sit down and work it out.

    I've suggested before that the way to eliminate the cost advantage for Strongbow and Stella Cidre without hitting artisan producers (or Thatchers and Westons) is to double the juice requirement for products to fall under the cider duty regime.

  14. I think you are mistaken as to the nature of many of the alcopop ciders, presuming them to be what organisation like CAMRA accuse them of being, artificial chemical fizz made of corn syrup.

    Have a look at the definitions here

    A cider is “at least 35% of the pre-fermentation mixture must be apple or pear juice”. You can make a fruit of the forests flavoured cider out of a base product that is technically a cider. The definition of “juice” allows for apple juice concentrate and looking at the commodity prices of that, duty rates, prices of high fructose corn syrup, it makes sense to ensure your alcopop cider is legally a cider. You can buy a litre of apple juice from concentrate retail for about 50/60p.

    It’s difficult to know what is in products when the ingredients are not clearly labelled, but one indicator is that they would have difficulty putting “cider” on the bottle if there was no cider in the bottle. Where you may be correct in “made wines” is with the alcopops like Jerimia Weed, but Dark Berry flavoured Magners/Bulmers/Strongbow are ciders.

    They may create a separate category for high juice ciders, for sure, but currently main stream cider is enjoying a tax break on a product aimed at younger drinkers. When you look at the reaction 20 years ago to Hooch and spirit mixed alcopops, it isn’t sustainable.

  15. "Dark Berry flavoured Magners/Bulmers/Strongbow are ciders."

    Not true. Any use of fruit other than apples and pears makes it a made-wine. That's why they're mostly only 4% ABV.

    See here.

    "So total volume of Made Wine relased for consumption is growing. But note where that increase is coming from: Made Wines between 1.2% and 5.5% ABV – ie Fruit Cider territory."

  16. Well the tax graphs do seem to indicate much of the growth is made wine.

    It's just that you don't have to put fruit in fruit cider any more than you need fruit in jelly beans or milkshake.

    Strawberry milkshake has no strawberrys in it, so why put them in strawberry cider and pay more tax?

    maybe the beards ought to make the case for us all knowing exactly what is in all forms of grog, via an ingredients list.

  17. A 500ml bottle of made-wine at 4% ABV attracts duty of 41p; a similar bottle of beer 38p. At 5% it is 56.5p vs 48p. So made-wine is actually taxed more heavily than beer.


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