Monday, 14 May 2012

The problem with minimum alcohol pricing

Scotland is set to introduce a 50p minimum price per unit cost on alcohol, it has been reported. It's also a move that some in England are using to suggest that our government should be follow suit sooner than later.

This is a policy that penalises being poor, without targeting the real problem groups when it comes to alcohol abuse.

Key Facts!
  1. Minimum pricing will not affect the price of "premium" or "above standard" brands in the supermarket.
  2. Minimum pricing will not have even a remote effect on the cost of alcohol in pubs and bars.
  3. Minimum pricing will make cheap alcohol more expensive, creating a higher financial threshold for ability to consume alcohol, however responsibly.

These points are important in stressing how much this is a policy that is only targeting the poor. Point 1 shows that those who are more able to buy "nicer" alcohol, branded spirits, more premium blends of cider or ales, are not going to be affected. At a push it will make 16 pint bottles of Magners unable to be sold under £21, an increase of £3 in total on some recent supermarket deals, and making the individual bottle price at around £1.31 a pint, under half the price you would spend on the same drink in a pub or bar.

On that point, relating to point 2, it's clear that pubs and bars already charge so much that there is no chance of them being affected by such a law. Any rhetoric about this policy stopping binge drinking is complete nonsense. Buy one, get one free, double vodka and cokes will still be perfectly legal to sell at no less than £2.

Which leaves us at point 3, that those who can afford to go out bingeing won't have their alcohol drinking lives changed, those who drink "better quality" alcohol won't have their lives changed...so the only people that will see a change are those that don't have the funds to do either of those things but still wish to enjoy alcohol, however responsibly that may be.

So that's the "penalises the poor" aspect explained...but what about not targeting the real problem? Does it, as some suggest, strike the right balance between infringing on people's liberties and providing a good barrier to stop the main problem of alcohol abuse?

You may investigate these stats for yourselves, check out the history of Scottish Health Surveys, and English statistics

Let me illustrate the general trends with the 2010 figures from Scotland, which mimic previous years'.

The largest grouping of men that have tried alcohol, are those in a household in the top 20% of incomes in Scotland. The group of men that have most given up alcohol are those in households in the BOTTOM 20% of incomes in Scotland. Those who usually drink either more than the recommended number of units, or binge heavily on one day's drinking, come from households that are (you guessed it) in the top 20% of incomes.

This pattern is slightly different for women, with more women having tried alcohol from households with incomes in the second highest 20%, but otherwise mimics the men's statistics entirely.

In fact let me just put a couple of numbers here...less than half of men that reside in the bottom 60% of households in income terms will usually exceed the recommended advice on alcohol consumption. Men from the households in the top 20% of income? 60% of them usually exceed that advice.

Women are generally better as a whole, but while less than a third of women in the bottom 20% of household income will usually exceed government guidelines, almost half will usually exceed alcohol consumption guidelines from the top 20%.

To be even clearer, just so you see it's not just about household income. Male managers/professional workers that abuse alcohol... 52%. Male small business/routine workers? 46 or 45% And for women, 45% of managerial or professional workers abuse their booze, while only 33-36% of small business/routine workers do.

It's a statistic that has been prevalent in many studies. Before my last blog got destroyed by terrible web hosts (sob), I did a review of health statistics on young people (12-18yo) that showed the same trend you can see in Scotland and England... poor people drink less than rich people, not entirely unexpected given they have less money. More than that, poor people tend to abuse alcohol less than rich people, and where there is a subset of poor people that do abuse particularly excessively, they are a very small minority.

This minimum pricing law may be about raising revenues, it may be about increased tax takings from the increased revenues, it may even be a super cunning way of making sure cheap alcohol becomes less strong (as if the government would have that level of intelligence!). It has also been said that it's a way of encouraging people to go to the pubs...though how adding a relatively small price to cheap vodka will make people go out and more than double their spend in a bar or pub instead, is beyond any logic I can comprehend.

What it is not, even if it is intended, is a way of dealing fairly with the issue of alcohol abuse. When most alcohol abusers are rich or live in affluent households, and your policy does absolutely zero to affect, and therefore dissuade, them from creating a strain on our health services...you're not protecting the NHS, or people's health, you're just discriminating against those in society that have actually been on balance the most responsible, whether enforced through relative poverty or not.

This is illiberalism, and worse it's not even illiberalism that can be argued is going to go any way to dealing with the problem it was created to solve. It's control for the sake of looking in control, to prove popular with a set of busy-body voters that are actually the main cause of the problem themselves.

Edit, November 2012: So now the UK is going to put a consultation forward that includes plans for minimum pricing in the UK. Much, if not all, of what I have said above also applies to England.

Check the stats on alcohol use (pdf), in particular page 40-41. You'll see that as income levels fall frequency of alcohol consumption, and the quantity of alcohol consumption in one "session", falls...the one exception is men, where the economically inactive (retired, students?, carers, incapacitated) have an unusually high occurrence of drinking most days a week. This still isn't large, just larger than those who are similarly unemployed, and compared to the trends in other alcohol consumption stats.

We walk in to these kinds of policies because people believe it's necessary to fix prices so that the poor unemployed around the country are protected from themselves from drinking the devil's juice. The reality is that it's social discrimination without basis. This is the most hurtful kind of "compassion", where we tell the poor that alcohol consumption is only something they can do if they join the ranks of "normal" society and get a job and a wage. Then, of course, you can drink to your heart's (mal)content.