Opinion: Minimum alcohol pricing – an attack on the poor

News that David Cameron is planning on imposing minimum alcohol pricing has not produced anything near the level of disgust that it should have.

This policy has the fatal flaw of expecting alcoholics and binge drinkers to behave in a rational and financially prudent manner. It’s self-evident that both groups will continue to purchase alcohol at a higher price, sacrificing other parts of their budget to make up the difference – perhaps clothing, perhaps food, perhaps their children. And let’s not forget, this policy will penalise all drinkers, not just the minority who commit crimes whilst under alcoholic influence.

NHS health figures released this year are eye-opening. They show a drop in the number of children between the ages of 11 to 15 who reported drinking alcohol in the week prior to the interview – 18% in 2009, down from 26% in 2001. Citing children’s access to alcohol as a factor in imposing minimum alcohol pricing is thus flawed, not least because the sale of alcohol to children is already illegal. Increasing the penalties for those caught doing so will serve far better to directly tackle the issue than increasing the price of the alcohol itself.

The figures also show a drop in the number of women who drink whilst pregnant, as well as an increase in drinkers’ awareness of alcoholic units and governmental guidelines on safe drinking. It seems that the right message is getting through.

What are especially interesting are the socio-economic figures, which show that there are a significant proportion of households that drink across the income scale. Even households with a weekly income of £200 or less show 56% of men and 39% of women drinking in the past week. This may be lower than the 79% of men and 71% of women in households with a weekly income of £1000 or more, but it’s still a very significant proportion of the poorest members of society!

The figures actually suggest that it’s the rich who have the drinking problem, not the poor, so why is Minimum Alcohol Pricing being pushed when it would have no effect whatsoever on the richest? Its biggest impact would be on those poorer households that choose to spend their income on alcohol – and it is here that the nub of the matter seems to be, that choice and the attempt to remove it.

The stench of Tory moralising is all over this, and it’s easy to see the middle-class snobbery in statements on the issue that attack cheap cider and defend real ales. People have no right to decide what the ‘lower’ classes should or should not be drinking! The implication seems to be that it doesn’t matter whether the rich drink, only the poor, and so using policies that have a greater impact on the poor than the rich is excusable instead of what it is – deeply regressive.

Liberals should have nothing to do with this prohibitionist attack on the poor, an attack that will do little to no good in tackling the issue of binge drinking. In addition, it may not even be legal according to EU competition regulations! Speaking of the EU, this is a cultural problem, not a tax problem; countries such as France and Ireland have lower alcohol prices with fewer of the social problems. Shouldn’t we be asking why this is? Take, for example, a recent publication by the DEMOS think-tank that takes a closer look at parenting style as an influence on drinking behaviour, and finds that ‘tough love’-styled parenting results in a lower likelihood of unhealthy relationship with alcohol later in life. What do you know? Education really is the key.

* Zadok Day is a Lib Dem activist based in Bury, and is co-Chair of Liberal Reform.

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57 Comments

  • Thanks for comments so far.

  • Just so you know, one of the UK’s federal LD parties has just reversed opposition to this and supported minimum pricing, among other proposals, in Scotland:

    http://www.scotlibdems.org.uk/news/2011/11/fmqs-big-business-must-back-over-alcohol-laws

    http://www.scotlibdems.org.uk/news/2011/11/working-constuctively-cure-scotlands-alcohol-addiction

  • Hmmm … am enjoying this debate. It’s a good one for the party and I think is helping to clarify liberal principles.

    I think I’d be in favour of banning shops from selling alcohol at a loss in order to attract customers, but not quite won over on minimum pricing yet. The points Zadok are mostly relevant, though the statistics about individuals who had drunk in the last week are a bit of a distraction – the debate is really about excessive drinking and drink dependence, not drinking per se.

    It is interesting that alcohol consumption has decreased in the last few years – has anyone suggested a reason for that? Is it just a facet of decreased consumption across the board?

    I think we need to return to the harm principle and use appropriate punishments rather than trying to pre-empt people’s behaviour: pursue those who damage property (including puking on the street) when drunk and put them on community payback and education programmes; use intoxication as a compounding factor, rather than a mitigating factor in domestic abuse; get GPs to encourage dependent drinkers to attend counselling, ideally with partners or friends who are affected by their drinking.

    I think the student sector bears a lot of responsibility for the abuse of alcohol and a significant proportion of the total student loan bill is just a direct subsidy of clubs and bars. The higher education sector should invest appropriately in educating students about responsible drinking and providing support to students who become dependent on alcohol as well as disqualifying students who repeatedly offend (Bullingdon club anyone?).

  • “Research shows that people with low income or who are living in deprived areas are more likely to suffer from a long term illness as a result of drinking too much . People who live in the most deprived areas of Scotland are 5 times more likely to die an alcohol-related death than those in the least deprived areas [2].”
    http://www.healthscotland.com/topics/health/alcohol/MinimumPricing.aspx

    So essentially your claim that “The figures actually suggest that it’s the rich who have the drinking problem, not the poor,” appears to be quite wrong. The rich may drink more on average, but patterns of drinking in the poor are polarised between prudent abstinence and genuinely problematic consumption. It is quite likely that the drinking of the affluent is generally much more continental in style (a glass of wine with dinner etc.) and so less problematic in nature.

    “this policy will penalise all drinkers, not just the minority who commit crimes whilst under alcoholic influence”
    It won’t penalise all drinkers. You completely fail to address the likelihood that people who don’t drink much are likely to see their grocery bills fall as supermarkets cease to loss-lead on booze and have to wage their price wars elsewhere. The policy won’t penalise pub drinkers, who may see prices fall as pubs get more custom as their competitiveness increases. It won’t penalise people who currently purchase alcohol above the proposed minimum price. You can’t say it’s an attack on the poor “that will have no effect on the rich” and also say it penalises all drinkers. You’re all over the place Zadok, spouting falsehoods that will raise a rabble, but that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

    Your argument against minimum pricing as a way of reducing under-age drinking has the same logic as the argument “murder rates are down so there’s no need to look for better policies to reduce murder” (incidentally minimum pricing is quite likely to reduce the murder rate as so many violent crimes are committed under the influence).

    I despair at the ideological commitment of some liberals that blinds them to the potential of policies to free people from suffering. This is not Tory moralising. The SNP are pushing it in Scotland and the Scottish Lib Dems are supporting them. The Scottish Tories are opposed. Sometimes government intervention can be a good, and liberal thing to do.

    Education may well be the key. I am all for employing educational interventions that work, but there are a number of angles from which we can attack Britain’s alcohol problem. Knee-jerk liberalism should not close off the minimum pricing avenue before we all have a chance to reap the benefits.

  • “Why, if the arguments above pro the thing are so good, then why has the govt chosen to do it through minimum pricing rather than taxation? I’ve asked this about five times in different places and still don’t have an answer.”

    @Louise Shaw – I think the argument for MP is that it does not punish all drinkers, only those who buy vast quantities of cheap booze (i.e. the synthetic cider type). Increasing tax on all alcohol would increase pressure on pubs and microbreweries, who are already under high pressure (my local pub was only just saved from closing last month). I guess it might also affect the student super deal nights.

    It seems a better approach than taxation to me, but I would still prefer it if we tackled this problem from the “effect” side rather than the supposed “cause” side.

    I think one of the main worries is that large numbers of homeless people die of alcohol poisoning – often from cheap supermarket cider. Again, though, why we are trying to price them out of the market rather than giving them support I don’t know.

  • @Zadok, I notice you make no mention of the rate of pub closures. Is this because you haven’t noticed or you dont think its relevant?

  • @Alistair – unless the minimum price is very high then the policy ought to be *good* for pubs as it makes getting wasted at home more expensive for some people.

  • @Louise Shaw

    So why taxation rather than minimum pricing?

    The aim is to prevent alcohol being sold at less than a certain price. The simplest way of achieving this is to say you can’t sell alcoholic drinks below x pence per unit. A system of taxation could be devised to do this but minimum pricing avoids the costs involved to businesses and the government in trying to collect it. It’s not worth implementing a new system to collect a few pence off of every sale of cheap booze.

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 4th Jan '12 - 12:48pm

    I tend not to support the MAP idea, but I do agree with taxation of aclohol, and perhaps higher taxation in some cases.

    It’s worth noting that White Lightning no longer exists. (I note Gareth wrote “white lightning style” so presumably Gareth – you know this.) Its producers took it out of production because they feared it was encouraging irresponsible drinking (it probably wasn’t doing their PR much good either). Perhaps this is an example which should be noted.

    Scotland is mentioned above. It is perhaps rewarding to reflect on how much of the Scottish problem comes down to one drink – Buckfast.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/8462042.stm

  • Tony Dawson 4th Jan '12 - 12:52pm

    @Simon McGrath:

    ” the extraordainary thing is how many lib dems support this patronising attack on the poor”

    What a patronising attack on Lib Dems.

    Many poor people do not drink alcohol.

    Those poor people who do drink alcohol do not all drink cheap alcohol or large amounts of it.

    Perhaps Zadok Day is a secret creation devised to put forward arguments with which the creator disagrees in a manner such as to enhance the position of the creator? 🙂

  • @Ed – exactly – by focussing on the health aspect Zadok fails completely to address one of the main reasons people are calling for minimum pricing. Pubs are part of our culture. They are under threat from sub cost pricing from supermarkets. The same way that independent highstreet bakers, butchers, chemists, ironmongers were under threat before we did nothing as they were swept away. But arguably it is worse, because pubs are community centres.

    @Louise – you’re never going to get companies disclosing all of their commercial details publicly, but the losses the big Supermarkets are taking on the alcohol promotions are staggeringly vast. They have discovered that beer is one of the best items to loss lead on, its something that their smaller competitors can’t copy, unlike with items like bread and milk. Yes they have hammered down prices from suppliers, but they really are selling large quantities of beer at even below the cost they pay the suppliers, thats even leaving out the cost of transporting beer within their own network which is significant.

  • If Supermarkets are not really selling at less than cost – then why are they furiously lobbying to prevent a ban on this?

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 4th Jan '12 - 2:11pm

    Surely it cannot really be denied that MAP is an ‘attack’ on the poor in the sense that it inevitably affects the poor, who are of course more likely to drink cheap alcohol – indeed it seems that is the very aim.

    The question, then, is whether the liberal society we want should be one in which it is relatively more difficult for the poor to drink alcohol than for the rich.

    Would MAP work to reduce the negative health impact of alcohol on a proportion? Perhaps. But there are many, many things that the government could price the poor out of doing in order to improve their health.

    How about minimum prices for foreign holidays (skin cancer), pizza, crisps and other junk food (obesity), driving (road accidents), extreme sports (LOTS of health dangers there)?

    We wouldn’t contemplate (I hope) restricting the choice of the poor in these ways despite the fact hat they’d probably lead to longer life expectancies. So, why are we willing to do so with alcohol?

  • Thanks to all for comments so far. At work so can’t reply to everything immediately, and would like to take more time with some comments, but here’s a quick comeback on a few things.

    Firstly, agreed fully with those who talked in terms of punishing criminals, not addicts.

    Ewan: I’m not denying that alcohol abuse is a Bad Thing, perhaps moreso in Scotland than England. My point was based around what you admit, that the richer drink more on average, and that the poor will be more affected by MAP than the rich. “Penalise drinkers” – unclear I admit, but that was meant to refer to drinkers of cheap alcohol, rather than anyone who has ever had a drink. Cheap alcohol is not just the ciders of ‘White Lightening’ fame, cheap alcohol for many is affordable alcohol, and MAP would undoubtedly mean paying more for it. It doesn’t mean Gareth’s people who like getting legless in graveyards will suddenly see the error of their ways, either! I find your analogy about underage drinking/murder rates more than a bit daft, and quite plainly did not say *nothing* should be done – stopping people selling the weapons which are already illegally sold, rather than raising the price of all weapons, is a more intelligent tactic, no?

    I’m not hugely convinced about your scenario where retailers are forced to sell food cheaper because they’ve lost money, either, to be honest, and is that government business even so? Changing the behaviour of those with a problem is surely the focus, and as has been said elsewhere, asking people to buy 1l of good vodka rather than 2l of poor vodka doesn’t make drinking it a great deal healthier. And Tory-style moralising is Tory-style moralising, whether the SNP and Scottish LDs support it or not!

    I’m not super-keen on pub closures, no, but neither of interventions designed to save them (from a problem that may well have been worsened by other interventions like the smoking ban, as Simon mentions). If people choose to drink at home rather than socially, that should be up to them.

    And, as for Tony Dawson’s increasingly bizarre but always amusing observations on the topic of *me*, I’m sure there are faster ways to enhance one’s position than writing mildy controversial opinion pieces for LDV! 🙂

  • @Simon – sure – I got this information whilst working for a volume brewer. You won’t get big brewers talking about this openly or taking on the Supermarkets in the UK now because the Supermarkets are too powerful. Brewers like the volume but they don’t like the way their attempts to build quality brands have been eroded by the pricing.

    I’m seeing a lot of references to “the poor” in the thread, can someone explain to me why its ok for “the poor” who happen to be teetotal have to subsidize “the rich” who happen to be drinkers?

  • I don’t see how that quote contradicts that, Gareth…

  • A fantastically argued article – thank you Zadok. I think the suggestion of taxation that others have mentioned in previous comments is the best move here, it has a major advantage over minimum pricing in that the profits go to the government (and can be spent on combating the social costs of drinking, such as the NHS and policing costs) rather than to the supermarkets and off licenses (minimum pricing will hugely increase profits as it serves as a form of price fixing in a vaguely competitive market – that’s fairly basic economics). The other advantage is that if the tax is set at a level where it raises enough revenue to deal with the extra NHS cost caused by drinking, the extra policing needed because of binge drinking etc. then it can’t really be argued as illiberal – it is simply asking those who cause the costs (approximately speaking) to be the ones who pay them; an eminently reasonable and liberal position to take.

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 4th Jan '12 - 4:37pm

    White Lightning ceased to exist as a brand on 31st March 2010.

    Just saying….

  • Extra taxation would force more pubs out of business more quickly. Minimum pricing on the other hand would be likely to actually cut the tax take a little.

  • Honestly, this isn’t about getting people to drink less. It’s a way of presenting non income based tax hikes as progressive. And I think it will be used as another example of liberal do-gooders being spoil sports. Avoid like the plague.

  • I invariably agree with what Louise says, and I instinctively dislike the idea of minimum pricing, but I also have a lot of time for Willie Rennie (particularly if we are against the Tories), and as democrats I think we should be prepared to approach the issue with an open but sceptical mind, focusing on:

    – recognition that alcohol sales (like sales of other addictive substances) need to be controlled to tackle abuse

    – recognition that a minimum price regime may make it easier to tackle and prove evasion of duty and flouting regulations eg on under-age sales – I would be particularly suspicious of any alcohol which is sold for less than the duty payable (you don’t get that with airline tickets do you?) and children have the lowest incomes of all

    – not letting a minimum price be used as an excuse for not increasing duties further

    – insistence on a properly monitored evidence-based approach

    – being willing to go with the majority view, but in a constructive way

    – insistence that alcohol duty is use to mitigate/offset any adverse impacts on those with lower incomes eg ensuring we pursue other measures (such as the pupil premium).

  • Mark Inskip 4th Jan '12 - 9:50pm

    @Louise Shaw
    “I’m not buying that supermarkets discount below cost”

    Try;
    “Asda considers that persistent pricing below cost can be a necessary feature of
    competitive pricing for an individual grocery retailer: either because competition on
    various products is particularly intense and all retailers price below cost or because one
    retailer has a better cost price and another retailer considers it must match”
    Asda submission to the Competition Commission, August 2006.

    or

    “We price a small number of items below cost primarily because we do not wish to be
    beaten on price on those items by our competitors. For the avoidance of doubt, we do not
    set our prices with the intention of driving smaller retailers from the market.”
    Tesco submission to the Competition Commission, 30/03/2007

  • Completely agree with the poster’sbarticle. Bravo.

  • Zadok,

    I think you have seen my comments on the Facebooks groups we’re in and I gave my views that it would penalise those on lower incomes.

    You have done some investigation and found statistics which seem to back the case that in trying to sort the problems of a small number of irresponsible drinkers, it would impact on all drinkers, including the responsible majority.

    I hope the Lib Dems look closer into Cameron’s proposals as I am sure there is other information available. However you look at it though, it is regressive. So will Cameron say that the rich will pay even more?

    That said, this proposal is just for England and I am not aware that the Welsh Assembly Govt are looking at such a scheme. If it isn’t and Cameron gets his way, you won’t need booze cruises to France, but booze buses to Wales! Might give the Welsh economy a boost if booze warehouses open in Wales, just over the border from England……

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 5th Jan '12 - 3:16pm

    One would hope that any problems of alcoholism or binge drinking would be better tackled through good health care provision, advice, support, counselling – that sort of thing. Raising some of the prices is not the answer. It won’t work.

    If there was any example needed, one only needs to look at the one single drink which is probably attributed with causing the most violence: Buckfast. or “Buckie”. It would be unaffected by minimum pricing, according to the statement above. So what’s the point? And White Lightning does not exist any more. I fear minimum pricing would hit the very quality ciders and ales which engender sensible drinking based on quality and taste, rather than alcohol content.

  • “The minimum price may cause some to drink less, and may cause some to use more of their income to drink the same amount. The former are the good news, the latter are the bad news if they can ill afford to divert their income. However, anyone in that group needs to be identified by social services and helped to join the former group.”

    Why not just introduce alcohol rationing and have done with it?

    And if you’re going to argue against that, I’ll ask you some awkward questions about why you’re in favour of “burying children killed by drunk drivers” …

  • Richard Swales 7th Jan '12 - 1:19am

    Nobody here has answered my point from the previous thread, that increasing the mark up on drinks is going to increase the marketing resources and aisle space available for them.

    As for how it affects the balance between the rich and the poor, I would submit that we need to create systems in relation to various issues such as this one that make sense in their own terms, and make sure to use the tax and benefit system to alter/correct the balance between rich and poor, rather than seeing every single issue in terms of rich and poor and creating a lot of complex and illogical systems (I would also put the child benefit changes in this class) to try to correct the rich/poor balance while legislating on tangentially related issues.

    Also cheap vodka can also be drunk responsibly as the time it makes most sense to buy it is if it is to be used with mixers rather than drunk neat.

    All of the above is secondary to the fact that it’s my body, it’s my choice and it’s none of your business.
    I would really like those who deny the liberal arguments on this to explain how their approach differs from the statist approach of New Labour.

  • Yellow Submarine 7th Jan '12 - 4:32am

    #fridgepacktax

  • David Evans 9th Jan '12 - 5:03pm

    @Paul Weller

    “One would hope that any problems of alcoholism or binge drinking would be better tackled through good health care provision, advice, support, counselling – that sort of thing. Raising some of the prices is not the answer. It won’t work.”

    I would like to see some objective figures relating to this statement rather than just hope. The one thing we all know about “good health care provision, advice, support, counselling” is that it is very expensive. Reducing the need for it in a cost effective way would be better. As for raising prices, why is it not the answer or at least part of the answer?

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