Pricing won’t cure our alcohol issues

Minimum pricing will penalise everyone without solving the problems

Scottish Government
The Scottish Government will introduce minimum pricing on May 1.

HAS minimum unit pricing suffered an identity crisis since it was first proposed over ten years ago?

If the measure has public support I reckon that was largely achieved on the basis that it was designed to target high-strength products sold at “pocket money prices” and have little or no effect on responsible drinkers.

Yet, when the unsuccessful assault on the Scottish Government’s flagship legislation was heard in the Supreme Court last July, it seemed to me that the explanations offered by the Lord Advocate were, frankly, baffling when the challenger’s QC suggested that the aim of minimum pricing seemed to be a moveable feast.

So, what categories of drinkers are in the frame?

Harmful drinkers… hazardous drinkers… even those who drink responsibly?

Researchers at the University of Sheffield – who predicted the effects of minimum pricing by “modelling” – have suggested that “moderate drinkers” (those drinking within the 14 units per week guideline) “would see very little impact on their spending”.

Professor Petra Meier, director of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, was quite explicit: “Our study finds no evidence to support the concerns highlighted by [Westminster] government and the alcohol industry that minimum unit pricing would penalise responsible drinkers on low incomes.

“Instead, minimum unit pricing is a policy that is targeted at those who consume large quantities of cheap alcohol.”

But the actual figures punted by the academics don’t stack up.

They’ve predicted that “an average moderate drinker” would spend just £2.25 more per year on alcohol.

As a matter of fact, that’s wrong.

Let’s take the case of a cash-strapped pensioner couple.

Every month they buy and drink two bottles of ‘budget’ whisky priced at £11.00 (70cl, 40% ABV). Their weekly consumption is seven units per week each – just half the recommended guideline amount, so well within the bounds of ‘moderate’ or ‘low-risk’ consumption.

We were led to believe that this is not the sort of “harmful” or “hazardous” drinking minimum pricing is supposed to target (although, come to think of it, we’ve since been told that absolutely no level of drinking is safe).

If the minimum unit price is fixed at 50p, the couple’s alcohol spend would rise by £72.00, equating to 27%. At 60p per unit the increase would be £139.20 – a whopping 52%.

And it’s an odds-on bet that if we don’t have the higher price fixed on the May 1 starting date, it will be just round the corner.

What about the effect on those who drink at harmful or hazardous levels? Is it at all realistic that persons in low-income groups suffering from alcohol dependency will become abstinent or reduce their intake to a sensible amount?

If some dirt cheap, high-strength brands have been described as the “crack cocaine” of the alcohol market, it’s a logical consequence that addicts will take other measures to get their “fix”.

I reckon there’s considerable force in the views expressed by Christopher Snowdon writing in The Spectator (November 15, 2017). He’s sceptical about an approach that targets the product rather than the person and reckons that the heaviest drinkers will seek out illicit sources and the poorest of the poor could even turn to methylated spirits and so-called legal highs.

And, thinking of the ‘person’, those living in the most deprived communities are six times more likely to die from alcohol-related harm than those in more prosperous areas.

The stark fact is that they use alcohol as a mechanism to help them cope with miserable life circumstances.

Unless we take radical steps to tackle the causes of addiction and commit more resources to helping those who suffer from alcohol dependency, we will never win the battle against alcohol misuse: on their own, attempts to restrict supply – through pricing or other mechanisms – approach the disease we seek to cure from the wrong end.

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Jack Cummins is one of Scotland’s leading licensing lawyers. Every month he writes on licensing law and answers readers’ questions in SLTN.

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Jack Cummins is unable to enter into personal correspondence on readers’ questions. The advice offered in SLTN is published for information only. No responsibility for loss occasioned by persons acting or refraining from action as a result of material contained in SLTN can be accepted by the author or publisher.