One of the abiding myths about minimum pricing for alcohol is that there is real world evidence from Canada that it ‘works’. This is important to campaigners because the rest of their evidence is based on a questionable computer model from Sheffield University. The best known factoid about the Canadian experience is that a small rise in the minimum price led to alcohol-related deaths falling by a third in the province of British Columbia, thus leading The Guardian to conclude that ‘Canada is proof that state-controlled drinking is good for health’.
Unfortunately, this is nonsense on stilts. Alcohol-related deaths never fell by a third or anything close to a third. In fact, the annual number of deaths directly attributed to alcohol rose from 315 to 443 in British Columbia during the period in question (2002 to 2011). The number of alcohol-related hospitalisations also rose.
Nevertheless, campaigners are doubling down on this claim by reporting a similarly miraculous effect of violent crime. In a study being touted by the Institute for Alcohol Studies, the same increase in British Columbia’s minimum price is said to have reduced violent crime by nine per cent. This claim is illustrated by the graph below, taken from the study:
Unlike the decline in deaths, the drop in crime did actually occur, so that’s a good start, but the graph still raises a number of questions. Firstly, why was $1.17 per unit associated with a lower crime rate in 2010 but not in 2002? Secondly, the price rise was tiny. Can we really believe that a difference of a mere four or five cents per unit is enough to have a dramatic effect on the crime rate?
But the biggest weakness here is the absence of a control group. Without another jurisdiction with which to compare it, all we have is a rough bivariate correlation. Crime, including violent crime, has been generally dropping in most Western countries for twenty years or more. Has the decline in British Columbia been more rapid than in the places which don’t have minimum pricing?
An obvious comparator is Britain, which has so far refused to introduce minimum pricing despite incessant lobbying from ‘public health’ groups. If we take the equivalent data (police recorded crime against the person), look at the same time period (2002-10) and use the same scale, we can see that we have seen a larger decline in violent crime since British Columbia started increasing their minimum prices than British Columbia did.
The data from England and Wales provide an even better fit for the ‘minimum pricing works’ hypothesis than does the Canadian data. Whereas the crime rate in British Columbia stayed flat when the minimum price went down (in real terms), it rose in England and Wales, as it should do according to the hypothesis. The minimum price then started going up in 2005 and the crime rate immediately started to go down. It would be a beautiful fit if it weren’t for the small problem that we didn’t have minimum pricing. British Columbia did.
Perhaps minimum pricing is such an awesome policy that its effect on violent crime was cosmically transmitted across the ocean. Or, more likely, crime rates are generally declining around the world, so pretty much anything is going to coincide with a fall in crime if you look hard enough.