Saturday, August 14, 2010

On the mimimum pricing of alcohol: arguing with myself - help needed

David Cameron has been making broadly sympathetic noises in favour of local minimum pricing schemes for alcohol. That one of the reasons he gave for this was that he seems to think that you can get twenty cans of Stella for a fiver has been the subject of much - ok, just a little - mirth in the blogosphere.

There's some fair enough comment here from Paul Sagar; how can someone so out of touch with reality assess, for example, the impact that various cuts in government expenditures are going to have? But I'm wondering how much mileage there is in this line? That this Etonian toff doesn't know how the shoe pinches in on a par with "Doctor Writes Prescription" in terms of news-worthiness and rather distracts from the point: is minimum-pricing of alcohol a good idea or not?

Now, like a lot of bloggers who have commented on this issue, I've tended to be sceptical because as well as being our national sport, drinking happens to be my hobby and I don't particularly appreciate the prospect of being financially penalised for the sort of shit other people do when they're pissed - like setting fire to themselves, starting fights or thinking it's a good idea to drive or operate heavy machinery.

But I've been having heretical thoughts lately - and particularly since last Saturday's visit into Glasgow city centre. The SNP picked up on Cameron's remarks because they've been pushing this idea for some time. It's sympathy for the devil but the reason they've been pushing it is because we have a serious problem here.

The question is whether increasing the price of alcohol would either work and/or be justified? Unsure - but another reason for my growing agnosticism over the issue is that some of the arguments that are used against it are unconvincing. For example:

Price increases won't make much of a dent in the demand for alcohol.

It depends on how much it increases, surely? The thesis that the demand for alcohol is inelastic is implausible. Maybe the 35 to 50 pence range people have been talking about wouldn't make much of an impact but are we being asked to believe that an increase to between 1 and 2 quid a unit would have no significant impact on consumption? I find this unlikely. Whether it would be justified would be another matter, which brings me to one of the other arguments made against it...

Price increases would hit the poor

Dave Semple makes this point here. The answer to this is, of course it would - but one should make the argument against inequality - not against using the price mechanism to limit the supply of a product that unquestionably causes a great deal of social harm. And to whom does it cause the most harm? The poor, of course - when were things ever otherwise?

Price increase penalise those who cause no harm by drinking

My own favourite. But arguably this happens already anyway. We pick up the tab for extra policing, emergency services and health services. Arguably minimum pricing, while being a blunt instrument, at least targets the people who actually use the product, which is more than can be said for the present situation.

Having said all this, I'm unconvinced with my own arguments against my own arguments for a couple of reasons:

There's a limit to what even price increases can achieve simply because it is not the only variable that determines levels of alcohol consumption. Never mind 'culture' and all that - it's too nebulous. Broadly speaking, people in richer countries drink more simply because they have more disposable income and it is very difficult for duty to keep pace with this without being intolerably draconian. The UK's duty, for example, while falling in real terms over the years, is still relatively high. The primary reason why people drink more than they did twenty years ago is because on average they are richer than they were twenty years ago.

Moreover, there are a number of other European countries that have a) a higher standard of living than us, b) higher rates of alcohol consumption than us, c) lower duty than us but don't seem to have the social problems we do, which brings me to the final point: it is essential that people are clear about what they mean when they talk about the problems associated with alcohol. Sure there's a lot of health problems but the one that concerns most people - the one that impressed itself on me recently - is one of public order. Or to put it bluntly - our city centres are a disgrace. Our A & E departments on a Friday or a Saturday night are a fucking disgrace. I wouldn't have thought that limiting consumption by price alone is going to address this situation. How it should be done would involve a range of measures but there's one that tends to be overlooked: you can limit the supply of alcohol simply by making it more difficult to buy and to consume. Look at tobacco consumption in the US before dismissing this out of hand.

In short - dunno. What do you lot think?
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