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How do we decide if a drink is too strong … or too cheap?

The off-licence round the corner has a deal offering two bottles of wine for a fiver.

I’m not pretending that their plonk is likely to worry the producers of Chateau Yquem or Petrus, but wine of that quality would be wasted on me.

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Since wine is one of those subjects on which it is easy to know slightly more than you can afford, I pride myself on not knowing too much about it, lest I should price myself out of the market.

But if Nicola Sturgeon has her way, the choice won’t be mine to make. Those, like her, who favour a minimum price have been buoyed by David Cameron’s remarks about plans by councillors in Greater Manchester to introduce a similar measure. While ruling out the introduction of a minimum price nationally, he declared that he would look “very sympathetically” at local decisions, giving Miss Sturgeon her excuse to have another crack at the issue.

I don’t see that there’s anything problematic for the Scottish Tories (who opposed minimum pricing) in what Mr Cameron said. Devolving as many decisions as possible to the local level was one of the underlying principles of the Conservatives’ manifesto. In accordance with that principle, and Holyrood’s existing powers, that’s what happened: MSPs examined and rejected it. That’s one of the objections to Miss Sturgeon’s attempt to revive the measure. The second is that it’s a bad idea.

There are initially plausible reasons for thinking it’s a good idea. Alcohol abuse can certainly cause health problems, personal misery and contribute to crime, anti-social behaviour and debt. And certainly there are drinks which seem unhealthily (in both physical and moral terms) aimed at providing the maximum potential for alcoholic coma for the minimum outlay.

Ten years ago, I lived near a shelter for the homeless in London. The shop opposite did a roaring trade in Scotsmac, a patriotically-named hooch composed of those natural bedfellows, whisky and English sweet white wine, at about £1.20 a bottle. Other products, such as Frosty Jack’s, a strong cider which now costs about a pound a litre (13p a unit) also give the impression that they are cynically directed at those who are both very poor, and irresponsible drinkers. The fact that the former managing director of Aston Manor, which makes this ghastly beverage, was jailed for 18 months for attempting to poison the production line of one of his rivals doesn’t induce much confidence in his public-spiritedness.

But if those who have called for the banning of Buckfast, the tonic wine produced by monks which enjoys such favour amongst some of Lanarkshire’s thirstiest citizens, were to get their way, they would immediately move on to the prohibition of dozens of other drinks of similar strength and price. The revoltingness and cheapness of Lanliq, Emva, El Dorado, Thunderbird and the like are, however, no argument for banning them.

At what point is a drink too strong, or too cheap? Quite a few expensive drinks are considerably more potent than those listed above – port, sherry, spirits. And there is always going to be a price point at which some drink is the cheapest. That market is, however, distorted by the big supermarkets which currently sell alcohol as a loss-leader. Their anti-competitive pricing strategy is a large part of the problem, and it is revealing that they are amongst the strongest proponents of minimum pricing.

What would imposing a minimum price of 50p a unit mean? Whether “responsible” or “irresponsible” drinkers (in the estimation of special interest groups such as Alcohol Focus Scotland and Alcohol Concern, which take the view that there is “no safe level of alcohol consumption”), the rich will not be much affected. The ordinary, moderate drinker will be badly hit: 58% of the wine sold in the UK is under £4 a bottle. The Centre for Economics and Business Research last year estimated that the average cost to households would be £68, and the total cost to consumers £1.8 billion, compared with total savings across the NHS, policing and victim support of £200 million annually. The only significant beneficiaries would be brewers, distillers and supermarkets.

There said to be some evidence, from a study at the University of Sheffield, that price is a factor in total consumption amongst “high-risk” drinkers, and that it would reduce their consumption by some 10%, against 3.5% in moderate drinkers.

But a look at this survey shows that it is purest guesswork: it takes no real account of price elasticity, of consumption from illicit or, given the absence of tariff barriers in the EU, entirely legitimate but unrecorded, sources or the fact that the most serious abusers of alcohol (in common with all addicts) are likely to cut out other things to acquire drink.

As the disastrous failure of the past half-century of drug policy has demonstrated, a price rise will do little to deter such consumers, but it may do plenty to impoverish their families, drive them on to the streets and turn them to crime.

In fact, all the statistics in this debate are guesswork, or bogus. The costs of alcohol abuse in Scotland were said (in January) to be £3.5 billion a year. Last year, the UK costs of alcohol abuse were said (by England’s Chief Medical Officer) to be £2.7 billion a year. No one doubts that there are costs, but they are being plucked out of the air. And the benefits are never mentioned, let alone quantified.

To provide a true cost-benefit analysis of the pleasure afforded by pubs and drinking with friends and family you could start by looking at what people already pay, since that’s how they value it.

Tax revenue alone is in excess of £5.7 billion annually. The proven health benefits of moderate drinking are harder to assess, but considerable.

All Miss Sturgeon’s talk of the relative fall in the price of alcohol cannot disguise the fact that, if price were the determining factor, the British would be (excepting perhaps the notoriously teetotal Scandinavians) the most responsible drinkers in Europe.

I don’t see the usefulness of a measure which denies the poor those small and mostly beneficial pleasures, which makes it more likely that the poorest who do drink dangerously will become economically unviable and a burden on society, yet does nothing to impede the irresponsible, as long as they have the cash.

Andrew McKie

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