Saturday 18 November 2017

Minimum pricing raises its ugly head - again

I wrote this for the CAMRA column of our local paper, the Southport Visiter. It will appear next week:

The question of a minimum price per unit of alcohol is in the news again after the Supreme Court rejected the Scottish Whisky Association's challenge to the Scottish government's decision to impose the policy. Locally, Sefton Central MP Bill Esterson has expressed his support for a 50p per unit minimum price (Visiter 9.11.17). While CAMRA encourages responsible drinking - it is better to remember what you have been drinking and why you enjoyed it - it opposes such a policy.

Minimum pricing is a form of rationing based on ability to pay and, viewed that way, the inequity of such a measure immediately becomes apparent. Very few prices in pubs, clubs and other licensed premises would be affected, so it would mostly hit drinkers who, unable to afford pub prices, instead pay less in supermarkets. Whether they intend to or not, the advocates of minimum pricing are implying that alcohol misuse is largely the province of people on low incomes.

I wrote in September [in the Southport Visiter] that studies across Europe have shown that, as the price of legitimate alcohol goes up, the demand for smuggled and counterfeit alcohol also increases. One unplanned result is an expanding black market that deprives the Treasury of income. Booze cruises, anyone?

Mr Esterson says that “minimum pricing for alcohol works”. I don't understand this assertion, seeing that no country has actually tried it - Scotland has yet to implement the measure. The claim that a £3bn boost to the economy would result from declining consumption must be treated with caution: does it, for example, include the costs of job losses caused by the projected fall in sales? It certainly takes no account of the effects of making unaffordable a small pleasure for people on very restricted incomes.

Minimum pricing is a quick way of ticking the box 'dealing with alcohol misuse'; it does little to address the problem and merely penalises those among us with least money. However, it satisfies the political desire to be seen to 'do something'. Education about the dangers of alcohol misuse would be more effective, but as the cost would be far higher, the cheap and cheerless option, ineffectual and riddled with unintended consequences, is chosen instead.

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