Minimum pricing won’t end alcoholism – it will make the addiction more deadly

So the Scotch Whisky Association’s challenge to minimum pricing has failed and the last good reason to stay in the EU has disappeared. For the people of Scotland, the court case had become almost an academic exercise. With Brexit on the horizon, minimum pricing had become inevitable one way or the other. The SNP’s victory today means that their pet policy will, perhaps, be introduced a few months before March 2019 instead of a few months after it.

And then we will finally have an opportunity to see whether it works. No longer will we have to rely on silly computer models and junk science from Canada. Economists will be particularly interested in seeing what happens to the bottom of the market. The UK’s lopsided alcohol duty system currently favours beer and cider over wine and spirits. A unit of alcohol in strong cider is taxed at 7p while a unit of alcohol in a bottle of vodka is taxed at 28p. This is why street drinkers tend to consume strong beer and cider.

Advocates of minimum pricing might hope that their policy will put an end to alcoholism and street drinking, but the reality-based community knows that isn’t going to happen. The question is what will the heaviest drinkers turn to? With every unit of alcohol costing the same amount at the bottom end of the market, I suspect that Scotland will see a big fall in the sale of strong beer and cider, to be replaced with spirits, illicit alcohol and – for the very poorest alcoholics – methylated spirits. Others may turn to drugs such as Spice, the formerly legal high that is currently ravaging the homeless community.

It is not obvious that any of this will improve people’s health, nor is there any obvious mechanism by which the recovery of alcoholics is made easier by making them poorer. I was on the radio this morning with a gentleman from the Kenward Trust, a fine charity that helps people with substance abuse problems. Like me, he was sceptical about any approach that targets the product rather than the person, but he was hopeful that some of the money raised by minimum pricing would go to organisations like his. I had to break it to him that there will be no revenue. Minimum pricing is not a tax. It does not involve a transfer of wealth. It merely makes products needlessly expensive.

For the people of Scotland (and Wales), minimum pricing offers nothing but a higher cost of living. It is a myth that the policy will only affect the very cheapest drinks. In reality, a 50p unit price will raise the cost of most of the beer, cider and spirits sold in the off trade and will raise the price of about a third of the wine. The only categories of alcohol that will be totally unaffected are alopops and sparkling wine. Doctors and the MPs can rest assured that the price of champagne at their Christmas parties will not be going up.

Some people say that minimum pricing is a policy that clobbers the poor, and so it is, but it will also clobber those on average incomes. It would be more accurate to say that minimum pricing is a policy that exempts the rich. For that reason, we should raise a glass to the Scotch Whisky Association today. Their legal action was justified and had a good chance of success (minimum pricing for other products had previously been ruled illegal by the EU courts), but even in defeat they have delayed the implementation of this pernicious policy by five years, thereby saving Scottish drinkers hundreds of millions of pounds.

  • Gavin Jacque-Floris

    Fair enough that there’s reason to be sceptical about whether minimum pricing will actually make a discernible difference to alcoholism and street drinking, and to question what people may turn…but also amazing that Chris is basically saying to those people that he’s happy for them to stay drinking cheap alcohol at the cost to their own health and damaging those around them. Nice one Chris, what a lovely chap you are. Free the markets and let everyone take care of themselves!

    • He isn’t saying that and has never said that.

      • Gavin Jacque-Floris

        He literally talks about his views around people have the right to do what they want all the time – ie he is happy that they can choose to drink cheap alcohol, irrespective to what harm comes to them.

    • …but also amazing that Chris is basically saying to those people that
      he’s happy for them to stay drinking cheap alcohol at the cost to their
      own health and damaging those around them.

      He’s saying nothing of the sort. He’s pointing out that this policy will drive many of them to seek out cheaper alternatives, which can only make matters worse. I agree with him that it is a totally wrongheaded approach to problem drinking.

      In fact I would say it’s incomprehensible stupidity if I wasn’t aware of the fact that problem drinkers are nothing to do with it. The thin end of the wedge of prohibition is what this is all about. And when it doesn’t work, there will be calls of more of the same from the temperance lobby, raising the MUP to a pound, and then two pounds, and so on. Then we’ll hear cries for warning labels, grotesque medico-porn a la cigarette packs, restrictions on where and when it can be sold; we’ll start to hear of the perils of ‘second-hand drinking’ (that won’t be long coming), and the propaganda machine of ‘Public Health’ will be geared to making drinking socially unacceptable, something only the weak-minded and weak-willed do.

      We’ve seen (as has the temperance lobby) how successful the lies and propaganda about smoking has been, and the anti-drinkers want a piece of that action. MUP is a big step in that direction, and will give them a base to build on.

      If they actually wanted to address the issue of ‘problem drinking’ (at what point does drinking become ‘problem’, out of interest?), they would adopt a targeted approach, which is what Chris has suggested on a number of occasions. Raising the price of alcohol isn’t going to scratch the surface of alcoholism, and everyone knows it, including the ‘experts’ proposing the policy.

      • Gavin Jacque-Floris

        I don’t think that minimum pricing is a worthwhile thing, so not sure why you are wasting your time going on about that. I’m saying that Chris is openly happy for people who have a drink problem to buy cheap alcohol and suffer the consequences. He’s perfectly entitled to that view, it’s just classic anti-regulation, pro-personal responsibility and pro-industry rubbish that fails exactly those people!

    • JC Carter

      Nice strawman.

      The reality is, in any society that has increased the cost of drink or banned it, people have found alternatives. Typically these alternatives have a more significant impact on health than alcohol would have had. But public health folks seldom forecast the likely outcome scenarios. They hypothese great benefits and never any negatives. Then fail, every single time.

    • Simon de Lancey

      He’s saying what his sponsors want him to say.

  • gray cooper

    Politicians making themselves even more unpopular and unable to climb out the abyss they are in. Pompous creeps.

    • Simon de Lancey

      I don’t think the p⁣issheads who f⁣uck themselves up on cheap white cider tend to be voters.

  • Focker82

    Minimum Pricing is a simplistic policy rolled out to combat a complex issue. Doing something for the sake of doing something because it might sound “morally good”…does not make it the correct or moral choice. I think Chris is on the money about the potential pitfalls with this policy.

    There has to be a balance between social responsibility for oneself & community, and the role of the state, but it is continuing to shift too far under the The SNP who seem to think they can resolve all of Scotland’s social issues if they could only have more control to socially engineer us. Big state, more regulations, more tax, more control, more direction on how to run our lives. It’s left wing tosh.

    Nothing in human history has done so much to reduce absolute poverty than Free Markets and maybe if we started to embraced them further we would have a more prosperous nation and less people hitting the bottle hard.

    The more governments tinker and regulate our lives the more we fail. In a lot of Scots eyes we will always be one price rise, one tax rise, one policy and one tory away from utopia.

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  • David Wright

    Transit vans full of cider and beer will soon be chugging into Scotland from northern England to provide a ready supply of drink not affected by minimum pricing legislation to problem drinkers (and others) happy to buy it in back streets. Losers will be the off trade and poorer social drinkers. Typical SNP stupidity.

    • Wayne Brown

      Will it still be stupid when a proper government follows their lead?

      • David Wright

        Let me know when one does.

        • Wayne Brown

          Already suggested –

          Of course a ‘proper government’ could apply a tax which would have the same effect on prices and, at the same time, raise revenue – to pay for other approaches to health, life style etc.

          • David Wright

            Utterly delusional if you think it will do anything other than make alcohol more expensive for poorer social drinkers. Problem drinkers will simply source cheaper forms of alcohol at greater risk to their health and cost to society. Mind you, with the SNP and woodentop in charge it’s enough to drive anyone to drink.

          • Wayne Brown

            In spite of the ‘Typical SNP stupidity’ in your original comment I thought it might be possible to have a serious exchange, given the serious nature of the problem that minimum pricing is trying to address. It’s obvious that there’s more to it than just the monetary ‘cost’.

            But given the vapidity of ‘with the SNP and woodentop in charge it’s enough to drive anyone to drink’ I suppose we’ll have to leave it there.

          • David Wright

            Very wise! You’ll get no joy out of me. Come back in two years time and let us know how successful the policy has been. I’m ready for a gin now and a very good bottle of Duoro with lunch. Chin chin.

  • Iain McKinlay

    The Drug Barons North of the border will be rubbing their hands together. Ecstasy, heroin and cannabis cheaper than lager….

    • drshadrack

      That’s the free market for you

  • drshadrack

    I don’t think anyone has said that it will end alcoholism have they?
    That said the article largely ignores what impact the policy is likely
    to have on those who are not presently hardened drinkers. Clearly
    alcoholics will be less inclined to stop drinking than non-alcoholics –
    you should know that policy makers already know just that. They are
    thinking about the future. Whatever your views on free market economics
    raising the standard of living, it is clear that it has also helped
    make access to alcohol far easier.