Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Why I'm not convinced by imposing a minimum price on a unit of alcohol

The other day my mum, proud of learning the term straight from Radio 4, said she was not ‘pre-loading’ before a family friend’s birthday party. I found it funny that while young people use a different variation, John Humphrys, Theresa May and all these people on the radio/TV the wrong side of 50 were using it in inverted commas as if that’s the term people in my generation actually use. But anyway, there’s a serious point here and that’s what I’m writing about. I’m not convinced by government plans to impose a minimum price of 40p per unit on alcohol.

The problem of binge drinking, which lots of us can be guilty of, is such a wide one that just imposing a minimum price is simplifying it and not providing a solution. I have reservations about pretty much anything that will disproportionately affect those at the bottom of the income ladder. I know some will argue setting a minimum price is ‘for their own good’, but is imposing a regressive flat tax really dealing with the wider issue of binge drinking? It’s a short-term fix at best that doesn’t go near addressing binge drinking culture.

I’m not claiming to have the answer, but what I think any government should look at is alcohol advertising and consider introducing similar packaging regulations that apply to cigarettes in some countries. The Australian case where cigarettes must now be sold in plain olive green packets has shown that plain packaging on cigarettes has and will continue to make a significant impact on the number of people treated for smoking-related diseases.

I acknowledge that similarly plain packaging on alcohol is a radical idea and concede that it would not be a panacea, but it would have far more of an impact on myself for one. I don’t buy the super-cheap alcohol which will be banned by the minimum price law but am sure that at times my buying habits are influenced by appealing packaging and wanting to have the comfort of the same particular bottle I might often purchase in my hand.

I might even argue that in some cases the policy could have the opposite result from that desired and have an impact similar to the “forbidden fruit” effect of prohibition in 1920s America where demand actually increased and the black market grew. Naturally, most of the time, if you pay more for something, you’re under the impression that what you’re getting is better. Hence why Tesco Finest foods, for example, sell so well – they create a perception that some products are of a higher quality than more plainly packaged ones whether or not they actually are. Outlawing this cheap alcohol could increase some buyers' craving and just mean that some cripple themselves even more financially, leaving them with less disposable income and money to treat any alcohol-related illness acquired.

If you think about it, fixing a minimum price of alcohol does just punish and unfairly declare guilty one socio-economic group. It won’t affect the middle-classes who are far from blameless for the increase in crime resulting from binge drinking. It’s a simplification that places the blame for society’s binge drinking culture on one socio-economic group. Even if the government was to find a statistic showing that young people from poorer backgrounds are more likely to be those on city streets at night 'deterring responsible drinkers from going out', as Theresa May puts it, that might just be because they can't afford a taxi home or don’t have parents who can afford to pick them up. Whether or not it is a good policy (and I don't think it is), there's also an unjustness in who it targets.

Convenient for Cameron’s Broken Britain image it may be, it avoids dealing with the issue of binge drinking as a whole. I recognise that commendable groups like Alcohol Concern – as well as all the mainstream political parties – are on the other side of the debate, but I really think they’d do better to look at advertising, packaging and binge drinking culture. The latter will not be changed by merely imposing a minimum unit price on alcohol.

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