The Price Of Drink

The British Medical Association in Northern Ireland have jumped on the bandwagon (but certainly not on the wagon) calling for a minimum price per unit of alcohol in drinks. Fifty pence, is what they suggest.

The NI Chairman of the BMA, Dr Paul Darragh, is quoted in the BBC report as claiming that there is consistent evidence that alcohol consumption and rates of alcohol-related problems were linked to the cost of drink. Well, that is flat wrong. There is no evidence.

Usually, when pressed on this point, campaigners will refer to a report from the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group (at the University of Sheffield). Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? They must be proper scientists, being at a university and everything. Actually, anything I’ve read from them is absolutely not science. It’s not science to assume first that increased alcohol prices do improve health, and then use circular reasoning and cherry-picked data from other publications to “prove” the original assumption.

A couple of authors from the Adam Smith Institute (an economist and a statistician) published a paper ripping the Sheffield methodology to shreds. It’s worth reading just the executive summary to get a flavour of the arguments. It finishes “We conclude that predictions based on the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model are entirely speculative and do not deserve the exalted status they have been afforded in the policy debate.”

Excessive alcohol consumption causes both social or health problems. Binge drinking, particularly by young people, is notorious for its effects on society. The television people always find it easy to get footage of late night antics: fighting, falling over, throwing up in the gutter, fornicating in the flowerbeds. People who do that sort of thing are harming their health, of course, but for most of them it’s just a phase they go through. They grow up and become boring.

Those who get hooked on alcohol and can’t give it up are in a different category. It would be compassionate to try to help them, never mind the additional health costs they incur and the impact on our taxes.

What effect would a modest price increase (i.e. one that the politicians could get away with) have on these two classes of problem drinker? Is price a major factor in people’s decision-making? What about the young people staggering home or fighting for taxis; have they all just come out of the cheapest, coarsest drinking dens? Not in my experience. In fact, quite likely they’ve been in a flashy club where the drink prices are substantially inflated.

Allegedly, the youth drinkers start the night by drinking cheap supermarket booze at home, but I’m not sure that this affects the argument. The objective is usually to get hammered, and whether you have nine drinks at home and one in the club or vice versa seems to make no difference.

I don’t know if you’ve ever known someone in the second category, the real alcoholic. Without help, they literally can’t stop drinking. Food, shelter, clothes — everything is secondary to getting the next drink. Do the unit pricers really think that an alcoholic will sit down and rationally decide “Well, with the price increase, alcohol will take a larger proportion of my income, so I must reduce the amount I buy.”?

If I was of a conspiratorial bent, I’d suspect that the whole idea of a legal minimum price per unit was a plot by the supermarkets, who would do very well out of it. Why isn’t anyone arguing for a price increase by increasing the tax and making it depend on the alcohol content? I don’t think that would help either, but at least the additional money could be spent for our benefit, not for fattening shareholders.

William Hogarth, Gin LaneBut the real thing that narks me about the minimum price idea is the ugly underlying assumption that problem drinking must be a disease of the poor. The proposal is based on the notion that 50 pence per unit will matter to the people with the problem: in order for it to make any difference, it must represent an appreciable percentage of their income. That is, the poor.

As I said at the beginning, the doctors are the latest group to call for a minimum alcohol price. As it happens, out of all employment groups, doctors have one of the highest incidences of alcohol abuse and dependence. But doctors are paid well, very well. Will a minimum price save the alcoholic doctor? I think not.


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