Drink!

One of the advantages of devolved government in the UK is that the regional bodies can sometimes be both more nimble and more progressive than the national government. Smoking bans in public places were introduced in Scotland and Northern Ireland more than a year before a ban for England and Wales was included in a new UK law. The devolved governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland were probably influenced by the previous introduction of a similar ban in the Republic of Ireland, where experience showed that it was both enforceable and had wide public support.

In the years after the smoking bans, research showed marked decreases in hospital admissions for smoking-related diseases (for example, a 17% fall in Scotland for heart attack admissions by 2008). While a pro-smoking sceptic might argue that there’s no absolute proof that a smoking ban leads directly to health improvements, I think the correlation is striking enough to convince.

In the past week or so, some health organisations in Scotland and Northern Ireland have backed the concept of a legal minimum price per unit of alcohol in order to combat the health, crime and social impacts of alcohol abuse.

Just to be clear, this is a different kind of proposal to the banning of smoking in public places. That was a law that directly regulated behaviour. The suggestion to set a minimum alcohol price would be an attempt to change behaviour indirectly, through economic means. The idea that money is the only way to change public behaviour is a particularly pernicious piece of Thatcherite dogma which has been enthusiastically applied by UK governments since the 1980s. So, rather than provide better public transport, say, motor tax is increased in the hope that the amount of car travel will be reduced.

I’ve spent the morning doing detailed research (all right, searching and following up links on the Internet) and I can find no actual scientific studies of the effect of regulating alcohol price. I have found some theoretical and modelling work which has been published, and then quoted and mis-quoted by those who want to impose price controls, but I’m not at all impressed by the methodology adopted to model consumption versus price. Essentially, the logic is circular: assume some relationship where consumption declines as price rises and then make that one of the paper’s conclusions or “findings”.

If the price of alcohol was a major factor in the problems associated with alcohol, you would expect that alcohol would have the worst impact in parts of the world where it is cheap. Europe provides a handy laboratory to test that assumption, with some countries having alcohol cheap and readily available, and some having high prices and strict regulation (for example, in Finland, you can only buy wine, spirits and strong beer from the government company “Alko”.)

And the conclusion? No relationship at all between price and either consumption or alcohol problems. Spain has roughly the same average consumption per head as the UK, even though alcohol is much cheaper, and although you’d guess that the health impact would be similar, Spain seems to have less binge drinking and alcohol-related crime. Iceland and Scandinavia all have exceptionally expensive and heavily regulated drinks prices, but suffer particularly badly from binge drinking. (Their average consumption is only 10% lower than the UK’s as well.)

My own opinion, based on observation of life in Italy, Ireland and the UK, is that alcohol abuse is a symptom of psycho-social problems, not a cause. We Celts drink because we are fucked up and our society is fucked up. That’s what needs to be fixed.

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