One of the most common arguments I read against the government control and regulation of the currently illegal drug markets is that we have so many problems with alcohol. Were cannabis for instance to be “legalised”, authors presume its use will increase and create new social problems to rival those that alcohol inflicts.The simple counter-argument employed by myself and other drug policy reformers is that alcohol is a very poorly regulated drug. Were any of the other currently illegal drugs to become regulated by the state, the alcohol model is one model it would be extremely unwise to replicate. Alcohol is aggressively marketed, education on its potential for harm is insufficient, it is available at prices as low as 12p per unit, and it is far too easy for children to get hold of.It is therefore very heartening to read of David Cameron’s apparent enthusiasm for a minimum price per unit of alcohol. This is a measure that the SNP government in Scotland have been trying to pass into law for some time, and that received the backing of the Scottish Liberal Democrats at our autumn conference. It is also supported widely within the healthcare and criminal justice professions, who recognise the potential for the burden of work that alcohol creates for them to be reduced.
There are serious concerns however that minimum pricing will impact upon the poorest and most vulnerable in society to a far greater extent than the rest, while lining the pockets of producers and retailers rather than raise much-needed tax revenues.
These concerns may well be unfounded. For example, in a 2 week 2009 Living Cost and Food survey only 29% of the household decile with the lowest expenditure spent money on alcohol, while 83% of the top decile did so. Likelihood of alcohol purchasing rose fairly steadily as you progress through the deciles. Alcohol is not a daily staple for the poorest in society. It is a luxury that the majority already sensibly choose to do without. Indeed the IFS regard minimum pricing as broadly progressive in its impact as a result.
If you factor in the likely behaviour changes of retailers in response to the measure, it’s quite possible the poorest who don’t drink will benefit even more. With the removal of discounting alcohol as a means of attracting customers into supermarkets, it is very likely that the supermarket price wars – that were thought to be partly responsible for November’s fall in inflation – will need to be entirely waged in the pricing of non-alcoholic beverages and groceries. Researchers project that those who drink moderately or not at all will see their grocery bills fall as a result of a minimum price for alcohol being set: “moderate drinkers should no longer be effectively subsidising the alcohol purchased by the harmful and hazardous group.”
On the issue of taxation versus minimum pricing, if minimum pricing is the most effective way of saving costs to government through policing or health expenditure then that is the route we should take. I’d take £1Bn in costs prevented over £1Bn in revenue gained if those prevented costs are for the resolution of criminal proceedings or traumatic injury or illness.
What is most important in this endeavour though is the impact the measure will have on the most vulnerable in our society. For those existing impoverished alcoholics who might see the cost of servicing their addiction double or treble, it is absolutely essential that we couple minimum pricing with effective investment in outreach and treatment services in order that their life doesn’t suddenly become an intolerable struggle. The short term pain of these individuals should hopefully be worth it for the number of people minimum pricing prevents from following them into addiction.
Perhaps the single most important effect of this policy will be on our children. There is a very strong correlation between the amount of money 15-16 year-olds have to spend each week and the amount they drink and the risks they take. Making the drinks they drink more expensive (and under-age drinkers share the “the cheaper the better” instincts of alcoholics) should significantly affect the incidence of dangerous drinking and offending by teenagers, and so impact upon the likelihood of them making a success of their lives.
One problem minimum pricing might struggle to overcome is European competition law, and it is here where the UK government has to take a principled stand. Dangerous drugs should not be regulated according to the standards of free market capitalism. Where strong scientific evidence suggests a nation’s citizens can be better protected from the harms of an addictive drug, that nation should have the right to take whatever measures the evidence indicates. Once this principle is established, we can kick on and challenge the drug conventions that restrict our ability to protect our citizens from the currently illegal drugs.
Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol have had it too easy for too long. We’ve taken great strides in protecting our citizens from Big Tobacco. Minimum pricing could start to turn the tide against Big Alcohol. Once we demonstrate that the harms caused by legal drugs can be effectively diminished through evidence-based policy, we can then take the fight to the criminals and terrorists of Big Illegal Drugs. It is a fact the government urgently needs to confront that we can only ever win the “War on Drugs” if they are legal. Only then can the policies of government have a significant moderating impact upon the market.
* Ewan Hoyle is the founder of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform and member of the Scottish Liberal Democrat policy committee.