NEW POLL: do you support a minimum price for alcohol?

by Stephen Tall on March 16, 2009

Government ministers have spent the last 24 hours distancing themselves from the proposal of chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson to establish a minimum price for alcohol which would see the doubling of the price of many beers and spirits.

Today’s Guardian reports:

Plans to charge a minimum of 50p per unit of alcohol are to be put forward by Sir Liam Donaldson today. The Scottish government is planning to introduce minimum prices for alcohol and these could come into force by the end of the year. It would make Scotland the first country in Europe to introduce minimum pricing, which would be accompanied by a ban on certain drinks promotions.

The proposals for England and Wales, which are backed by health professionals but opposed by drink manufacturers, could double the cost of some beverages sold as “loss leaders” by supermarkets. … It would double the cost of a £10 pack of lager, nearly double the cost of a bottle of vodka to £20 and set the minimum price for a bottle of wine at £4.50. The Department of Health indicated there was little prospect of the proposal being adopted in England while households were being squeezed by the recession.

The principle of a minimum price has won support from some prominent Lib Dems, including Don Foster, Evan Harris and party leader Nick Clegg, who last year commented:

It is unacceptable for retailers, especially big supermarkets, to run a coach and horses through alcohol duties in order to sell alcohol well below its cost. The immediate effect of below-cost alcohol is to tempt people to buy a lot more alcohol than would otherwise be the case.

“As a rule, I don’t believe governments should set prices, but when retailers are deliberately distorting the market we need to take action. That is why we should now look to the example of Ontario in Canada, where a socially responsible minimum price for alcohol has been successfully implemented. Alcohol related violence, disorder and illness is now one of the biggest problems we face. If supermarkets are not prepared to act responsibly it is time they are forced to do so.”

So, what’s your view? Should we consider legislating to combat the bargain basement booze bonanza? Or should government butt out, and let market supply and public demand determine the price of a drink? Here are your options to the question, ‘Is it time to support a minimum price for alcohol?’

>> Yes, minimum prices will help tackle the UK’s binge drinking problems
>> Maybe, there’s merit in the proposal but the middle of a recession is the wrong time
>> No, government should not penalise the responsible majority because of an irresponsible minority

As ever, let the debate continue in the comments thread…

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No comments

Any attempts at regulation of this sort will do nothing to stop people importing cheap alcohol from the rest of the EU

It will create an even larger black market in imported booze.

But the way this government is going, nothing is impossible or implausible.

They are a danger to all of us

by Simon on March 16, 2009 at 9:43 am. Reply #

I think the implementation is key – if it’s done wrongly, it will hurt everyone and maybe fall foul of EU competition regulations. If it’s right, it should help pubs, help lower binge-drinking, and drive down the price of a pint in the South to a more respectable level, as the mega-brewers will no longer be compensating for lost income elsewhere. So this is a Maybe, not because of the recession, but because it must be very carefully thought out, will face huge opposition from the industry, and is likely to be watered down to insignificance if tabled.

by Robson Brown on March 16, 2009 at 9:57 am. Reply #

I don’t understand how this will disadvantage the majority like everyone is whining on. The measure will make negligible difference to the average drinker in pubs, since their prices are already very high, and no difference in the supermarkets since the supermarkets will simply loss-lead other goods instead of booze.

The only people this disadvantages is the very heavy drinkers, which is exactly whom the measure is meant to target – which is of course an improvement over Labour’s own policies, which are often as not tremendous own-goals.

Personally, I’m not sure whether I’m against it or not, but let’s at least be honest about the consequences.

by sanbikinoraion on March 16, 2009 at 10:06 am. Reply #

“It would double the cost of a £10 pack of lager, nearly double the cost of a bottle of vodka to £20 and set the minimum price for a bottle of wine at £4.50. ”

This is one of those things when mention of someone else’s tipple doesn’t concern one much. But when it gets converted to one’s own tipple it raises the hackles. I am not a great wine drinker, but I have probably only drunk about 3 bottles of wine which cost over £4.50 versus x hundred priced under that. There are already high taxes on alcohol and huge quantities “booze cruised” in from the continent.

I think this is a serious proposal to tackle a serious problem, but on balance I am not in favour of it. If someone wants to drink themselves into oblivion, they will do so even at the increased prices. It will probably just mean that they eat even less and mack themselves even more ill.

by Paul Walter on March 16, 2009 at 10:24 am. Reply #

Hang on, how does this fit with Bob Russell’s attempts to axe the beer tax for on-sales?

by Oranjepan on March 16, 2009 at 10:30 am. Reply #

Below-cost alcohol? That’s bad and should be stopped – Clegg’s right, the existing alcohol duty mechanism shouldn’t be circumvented.

Minimum-charge alcohol based on unit? That’s stupid. Why should British cider makers be forced to sell their product at a higher price than an imported wine?

by Paul Gregory on March 16, 2009 at 10:33 am. Reply #

@Oranjepan: if you can buy an alcoholic drink in a pub for less than 50p/unit, you’re doing better than me.

I’ve a couple of concerns about the idea.

First, will it work? It’s easy to do the sums and say that heavy drinkers will pay an extra £13 a month, or whatever it is, but will that actually reduce problem drinking? Or will it just make alcoholics poorer, or fuel the black market in alcohol smuggled from the continent?

Second, if you raise the cost of low priced alcohol, do you push up the cost of higher priced stuff as well. If the cheapest plonk suddenly costs £5 a bottle, most vendors would want to increase the price of the reasonably decent stuff to maintain price differential. So the mid-priced wine drunk by moderate adult drinkers could well increase in price too.

by Costigan Quist on March 16, 2009 at 10:37 am. Reply #

I’m in favour of this, because I think it would reduce the differential in costs between supermarkets and pubs, and so help pubs to survive.

I don’t believe it will have any effect on binge drinking at all. Apart from the fact that binge drinking is mostly something people do in bars and nightclubs at far more than 50p a unit anyway, can you really imagine someone having a few drinks in an evening and then thinking they’d better not have another because it’s slightly more expensive than it used to be?

by Mark Baker on March 16, 2009 at 11:17 am. Reply #

It is none of the government’s business what anyone chooses to drink, or what price they can buy it for.

Treat criminal behaviour whilst drunk as criminal behaviour, and leave it at that.

I know that the temperance movement was aligned with the Liberal Party, but it always sat uneasily with liberalism.

This is of course driven by the supermarkets who want to increase prices, but don’t want the blame, so they help persuade government to do it for them, whilst authoritarian, ‘mother knows best’, elements of the medical profession call for restrictions to ‘protect people from themselves’.

by Tristan on March 16, 2009 at 11:46 am. Reply #

The alcohol issue isn’t clearly defined in this report. Anyway, it’s really a mix of different issues, based around consumption patterns, ranging from social disorder and accidents following binge drinking to issues such as long-term health decline and domestic abuse from steady and frequent drinking. Is a simple minimum unit price for alcohol a cure-all for all these issues across all sectors of society? Unlikely, althought that’s not to say it wouldn’t be useful as part of a larger policy.

As to those to think that such a measure is somehow anti-liberal, you need to be careful in case you find yourselves also saying that any attempt by gov to adjust prices to achieve some kind of social engineering is anti-liberal – coz this also applies to climate control measures.

In any case, the gov’s response about protecting the responsible majority is purely disingenuous – all the pressure on them is economic and financial. You can imagine their horror if people start losing their jobs in an election year because ppl stop buying alcohol due to the gov-increased prices!

by Simon Courtenage on March 16, 2009 at 12:29 pm. Reply #

No, it is ridiculous rubbish & wholely unmerited for the government to interfere & distort the market in such a way.

The great British pub is a vehicle for sensible, responsible drinking. If pubs are losing out to supermarkets, that is partly down to expense (which you will note is caused by government impositions & the reign of terror exercised by PubCos) & partly because half the pubs have nothing to offer that home drinking doesn’t.

With any luck, given an easy-going government regime, the true pub will experience a resurgence as people realise what they can’t get by swigging lager in front of a plasma screen TV, that is a warm welcome, decent company, proper drinks & that whole thing which is known as “atmosphere” & cannot be articulated in words.

This scheme is so cack-handed that even Brown rejects it. If you want to tackle binge drinking, promote serious visits to pubs, with a relaxation of age restrictions so long as parents & landlords are responsible. This will then proof people against that irresponsible drinking which comes of making alcohol some great forbidden, inaccessible thing that the state & the Daily Mail don’t want you to experience.

You would all have a good time reading “Real England” by Paul Kingsnorth in which he discusses the significance of the pub.

by asquith on March 16, 2009 at 1:21 pm. Reply #

“The only people this disadvantages is the very heavy drinkers, which is exactly whom the measure is meant to target …”

It will disadvantage someone who buys a cheap bottle of wine from the supermarket two or three times a week – to the tune of maybe £25 a month.

by Anonymous1 on March 16, 2009 at 1:29 pm. Reply #

I favour limiting the availability of alcohol rather than putting a floor under the price (see comments on “The Sound of Gunfire“).

However, I’d like to see how the Scottish scheme works out before I condemn Sir Liam’s proposal out of hand.

by Frank H Little on March 16, 2009 at 1:35 pm. Reply #

“The only people this disadvantages is the very heavy drinkers, which is exactly whom the measure is meant to target…”

This assumes (I believe falsely) that heavy drinkers purchase the cheapest alcohol.

It also assumes that they cannot afford to pay a bit more (and will therefore drink less). There’s a word for people who assume that the poorest in society are to blame for everything.

Can we please, please just for once take a principled liberal stance on this?

by Julian H on March 16, 2009 at 2:11 pm. Reply #

Anonymous1: did you even read my comment? Supermarkets don’t loss-lead booze because they feel people have a right to cheap alcohol, they do it to get people in the store. Put a floor underneath the price of alcohol and they’ll loss-lead milk, bread and other essentials further instead. So those who only purchase a moderate amount of alcohol will, sure, spend more on the alcohol, but they’ll be getting the money back through lower prices in the rest of the store.

It’s only when people spend a disproportionate amount of money on booze that this effect isn’t enough to ameliorate the alcohol price floor and they end up paying more.

Julian H – you’re right that if they were already buying above the price floor it wouldn’t make any difference.

I would agree with Simon C, though, that there is no intrinsic liberal reason not to do this, considering that alcohol has some pretty obvious large externalities that are not integrated into subsidized supermarket prices, and there is a definite parallel with eg. petrol and aeroplane fuel taxes, which we are, as far as I can tell, generally in favour of.

by sanbikinoraion on March 16, 2009 at 3:09 pm. Reply #

(By the way, I think that this is probably a bad idea now, on balance, but not for the reasons everyone else seems to think it’s a bad idea!)

by sanbikinoraion on March 16, 2009 at 3:12 pm. Reply #

sanbikinoraion

Sorry, but I don’t buy that argument about loss-leaders at all.

If the supermarket lowers the price of milk, the benefit of that will be shared among many more people than currently buy cheap alcohol – including non-drinkers and buyers of more expensive alcohol. Clearly the average buyer of cheap alcohol will be substantially out of pocket, even if their consumption is moderate.

Anyhow, Gordon Brown and David Cameron both seem to have rejected this proposal now, and if he has any sense Nick Clegg would be wise not to be too strident in its support.

by Anonymous1 on March 16, 2009 at 3:31 pm. Reply #

Double drop some pills. Two quid and you’re pretty mashed and don’t stand a chance of being a nuisance at chucking out/up time, unless you go around randomly professing your undying love for the wrong people perhaps.

Alcohol is already a pretty expensive drug for what it does and how much it takes to do it.

But nae worries – no doubt if this doesn’t get through, by the time we have to take our ID cards to Tesco to be able to do the shopping they will have found a way of rationing alcohol for real.

Even various government advisers, in England and Scotland cannot agree on what minimum price will reduce consumption by how much. It’s all nannying bollocks. Tough liberalism says make people responsible for their actions and come down quite heavily on those for whom that means “misbehave at will”.

by Jock on March 16, 2009 at 3:45 pm. Reply #

When Tesco is saying that they would enter discussions about minimum pricing “positively”, should that not make liberals just the weensiest bit uneasy about the scheme? Big business and big government combining to screw the little man gives me the willies.

This kind of social illiberalism from the so-called “liberal” party is the kind of thing which will drive principled liberals to the Tories.

by Philip Walker on March 16, 2009 at 4:34 pm. Reply #

I’m not at all convinced that the proposed minimum price will affect the binge drinking problem at all.

As Mark points out the main problems associated with binge drinking seem to be around pubs and clubs, where it tends to be more expensive.

And i am always wary of coming up with new rules where there are already perfectly good ones in place that could be enforced better.

When I went through my training with Scottish & Newcastle they stressed the responsibility licencees had to a) refuse entry to people who were drunk and b) to stop selling more alcohol to them. These rules seem to be enforced rarely and licencees do not seem to lose their licences for failure to enforce.

Let’s start by enforcing the rules that are already there before imposing new ones.

by Liberal Neil on March 16, 2009 at 4:47 pm. Reply #

This does not stand up to available evidence.
In Europe Binge drinking is the notm in Ireland, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Norway. In these countries alcohol is more expensive than in the UK. In France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Germany where alohol is less expensive they have far less problems.
So I say show us this evidence. I realy do not believe it exists.

by GerryH on March 16, 2009 at 6:26 pm. Reply #

I see that once again I am in the majority. 50 of 79 take the view that “No, government should not penalise the responsible majority because of an irresponsible minority “.

I always thought most people disagreed with me, but maybe not 🙂

by asquith on March 16, 2009 at 6:58 pm. Reply #

I’ve just been reading John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ and came across this relevant argument (in the concluding chapter on ‘Applications’):

‘A further question is, whether the State, while it permits, should nevertheless indirectly discourage conduct which it deems contrary to the best interests of the agent; whether, for example, it should take measures to render the means of drunkeness more costly… To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more dificult to be obtained, is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition… Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price… Their choice of pleasure, and their mode of expending their income, after satisfying their legal and moral obligations to the State and to individuals, are their own concern, and must rest with their own judgement’.

[FWIW, he goes on to argue that this doesn’t proscribe taxation for purposes of revenue].

So there’s certainly strong liberal precedent for disagreeing with Nick Clegg on this one…

by Oliver Mantell on March 16, 2009 at 8:42 pm. Reply #

For the second time in less than a week Tristan Mills and I are broadly in agreement ! Deal with criminality arising from any misuse of alcohol, but do not penalise the majority of drinkers because of the actions of a few.

If a trader offers a price on goods it is up to me to buy or not in an open and competitive marking. It is disappointing to see some on here give succour to such illiberal nonsense !

by Barrie Wood on March 17, 2009 at 5:37 pm. Reply #

Hear hear Barrie Wood!

by Julian H on March 17, 2009 at 6:07 pm. Reply #

er, that should have read open and competitive market – we already have too much competitive marking in the schools system, but that’s another story !!

by Barrie Wood on March 17, 2009 at 8:11 pm. Reply #

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