Minimum Price Fixing

Minimum prices for alcohol – “punishes the majority and hits the poorest hardest”. Perhaps if it works, this is a price worth paying?

Is it really ‘punishment’ for alcohol to cost at least 40p per unit? Anyone would think the Prime Minister had proposed putting VAT on food from the melodramatic use of language in some of the weekend papers. This is a bold move, not only in taking on the mighty drinks industry, but in showing that Conservatives do see the limits of Free Market Economics. I suppose it could be seen as ‘punishment’ if peoples’ only thought is how much a bottle of the wine costs. But it’s not; most people are not so ‘nimbyistic’. There is a growing sense that the misuse of alcohol needs addressing and not surprisingly, addictions were found to be one of the five drivers of poverty identified by the Centre for Social Justice in Breakdown Britain. I have done no polling but I dare say the ‘majority’ do care about the binge drinking amongst some young people, the police and ambulances needed in our towns and city streets of a weekend, and over a million alcohol related hospital admissions in one year alone. But unlike petrol, it is one area where a price rise, properly communicated, would I think be understood. People are not just economic beings with only economic concerns and need to be treated as such. But economically, alcohol misuse does cost the country a fortune and is largely preventable.

Yes, the majority of people, most of the time, use alcohol sensibly but I do work in parliament so I will be careful not to overstate the case! But is not paying a wee bit more sometimes worth it to deal with a problem that affects us all? “We are all in it together” is the right slogan here. And even if I were being ‘punished’, alcohol is at the end of the day one of life’s little luxuries. When I grew up in the 80s most families I knew did not have wine with many meals, perhaps occasionally at Sunday lunch and definitely at Christmas. Of course, there was the drinks cabinet containing Campari and Advocat but it was rarely used until my friends and I developed a taste for sherry. Perhaps returning to an age where a lot of young people first got drunk on fortified wine might curb their desire to repeat the experience! But seriously, alcohol, rather like orange juice was a luxury not a necessity. It should be nowhere near the Waitrose Essentials range even though Taramasalata makes the cut (for those who read my blog, yes I have a thing about the ‘Essentials’ range). This is not ‘punishment’ because if minimum pricing does work, it could bring society great benefits.

The second limb of the criticism, namely, minimum pricing will hit the poorest hardest, is disarmingly attractive but again flawed. The people who will mostly be hit will be those buying really cheap cider and vodka, a lot of which is pre-loading for a night out by younger people. I pray in aid of my Godson who is at university who said the hangover from cheap Vodka is like having drunk paint thinner. “Please, please, please just ban it” was his serious plea. So this group is not necessarily all ordinary working folk but some, of course, will be affected. But I similarly object to the quite patronising implication that all low income people are concerned about is the price for them. The link between alcohol and anti-social and criminal behaviour is undisputable and affects poorer areas of towns and cities more than middle class neighbourhoods. Also, people on lower incomes care just as much as the middle classes about their society and the effect on young people, policing and the local A and E. People on lower incomes proportionately give more to charity than those on higher incomes, so I am optimistic that if someone put the option of 40p per unit against the social benefits of reducing binge drinking to those on the London Living Wage, I think you would be pleasantly surprised.