Belfast Telegraph

Raising price of drink won't change culture

By Liam Clarke

My daughter, Alice, is not a heavy drinker; young people aren't like they were in my day. But one of her first ports of call before returning to university in Galway is Tesco for a large bottle of cheap supermarket vodka.

When it comes to drink prices, the room is full of elephants which people don't like to mention, but which they can't really avoid.

For instance, a main driver for cross-border shopping is the cheaper price of drink in the north. This will benefit our town centres in the run-up to Christmas as people stock up for the festivities.

That is one unintended consequence which Jim Wells, the health minister, should bear in mind.

There is also the fact that the Assembly is proposing to put up prices, but not derive any revenue from it; the voters will pay a Government-imposed premium, which pubs and off-licences will pocket.

"The total cost to the Northern Ireland economy is estimated to be as high as £900m per year, with the burden to healthcare alone costing up to £240m per year," counters Mr Wells.

But health costs are hard to work out. People who drink heavily live shorter lives and don't survive to get more complex illnesses, so the costs of that also need to be factored in.

Binge drinking is a problem, but price may not be the only - or best - way to handle it. Two years ago, 6% of problem drinkers said in a survey that they would drink less if the price went up by 40p a unit. Unfortunately, people are prone to wishful thinking.

How often have we heard that people would cut down on motoring if petrol prices rose? Or would give up smoking if duty increased? Some do, but many slip back after a while.

Low prices are attractive, but habit and lifestyle also count for a lot. For instance, alcohol prices here have fallen relative to inflation for years, yet the number of drinkers has remained much the same; in England, it has declined.

In southern European countries, like Spain, you can buy wine for couple of pounds a litre, but we don't see the local drunk in the streets very much. The drunks tend to be the Brits and Irish.

This is a cultural problem and sticking a few pence on the price of a bottle of cider won't solve it.

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