Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - May/June 2018
It is short-sighted in the extreme for anyone involved in the pub trade to welcome minimum alcohol pricing
ON 1 MAY, Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce a system of Minimum Alcohol Pricing, with the rate initially set at 50p per unit (10 ml) of pure alcohol. The claimed justification for this is that it is a way of reducing problem drinking but, given that it is estimated that it will affect 70% of all alcohol sold in the off-trade, it is an extremely blunt instrument. It is in effect punishing ordinary people of limited means for the problems of a minority. A couple could easily be made £200 a year worse off without even exceeding the very low official consumption guidelines. Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics have shown that the UK is the fourth most expensive country in Europe for alcohol, so it’s not exactly cheap in the first place.
It also comes across as a fundamentally patronising and élitist measure, implying that it is fine for the well-heeled to continue swigging single malts, claret and craft ales, but that the irresponsible proles are not to be trusted with an abundance of Carling, Glen’s Vodka and Lambrini. As the famous Victorian liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill said, “Every increase of cost is a prohibition to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price.”
It’s questionable to what extent it will affect the consumption patterns of problem drinkers anyway, and some may end up sacrificing other areas of expenditure. As the old Russian saying goes “Daddy, now that vodka is more expensive, will you drink less? No, my son, you will eat less.” It is also likely to lead to a whole raft of undesirable consequences, such as cross-border smuggling, bootleg brewing and distilling, and a switch to illegal drugs. Not so long ago, a Sheffield student had her eyesight permanently damaged by drinking counterfeit vodka, while five Lithuanian men were killed in Boston, Lincolnshire, by an explosion at an illegal vodka distillery. Minimum pricing could lead to more such tragedies.
Some in the licensed trade have welcomed the move as a way of redressing the price imbalance with the off-trade. However, it isn’t going to give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs, and it is hard to see how increasing the price of a can of lager from 60p to 90p is going to encourage anyone to spend £3.50 or more for a pint in the pub. It could even damage the pub trade by constraining household budgets and leaving people with less discretionary spending money.
It’s also an unedifying spectacle to see one part of the alcohol industry lining up alongside the anti-drink lobby in a misguided attempt to gain some short-term advantage over another section. As Winston Churchill said “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping that it will eat him last.” Surely all producers, retailers and consumers of alcoholic drinks should be united in opposing the neo-Prohibitionists rather than squabbling amongst themselves.
At a level of 50p per unit, it’s unlikely to affect any drinks sold in the on-trade, although it could hit some of the stronger guest ales sold in Wetherspoon’s after applying the 50p CAMRA discount vouchers. But the pub trade should bear in mind that the study by the University of Sheffield used to support the policy actually concludes that the most “beneficial” results would come from setting differential minimum prices for on- and off-trades, with that for pubs and bars more than twice as high. Any advantage gained from minimum pricing could turn out to be short-lived, as the spotlight turns to on-trade pricing. So, if you’re remotely inclined to support this measure, don’t forget that you could be next on the list.