Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Sober thinking needed instead of price hikes

Alcohol prices here have fallen relative to inflation, yet the number of drinkers has remained much the sameday
Alcohol prices here have fallen relative to inflation, yet the number of drinkers has remained much the same

The Health Department's recent survey will add fuel to the campaign for minimum pricing for alcohol, but it may not tell the full story.

The stand-out figure is that 4% of people said they would drink less if minimum pricing was introduced. This rose to 25% of problem drinkers, as defined by their answer to other questions, who said they would cut down if the price rose to the higher figure of 70p per unit.

That is higher than in Scotland, where the minimum price was set at 50p. If the price was set at 40p here, then only 6% of problem drinkers said they would drink a lot less.

The link between price and consumption in all products is undeniable, but it is weakened when lifestyle and habituation becomes a factor.

People often say they will give things up – from motoring to drinking to attending sports matches – if prices rise, but in many cases they get used to the new cost, or drift back to their old habits after a period of cutting back.

Alcohol prices here have fallen relative to inflation, yet the number of drinkers has remained much the same. In England prices have also been falling relative to inflation, but consumption has been declining since 2004.

If prices go up problem drinkers may well dig deep to meet the cost, or turn to counterfeit, or home-made, products.

In Scandinavia, which has the highest alcohol prices in Europe, there has been an explosion in home distilling to produce spirits. Binge-drinking in countries like Denmark and Finland is a major problem, in spite of eye-watering taxes on booze.

There are factors other than price at work in alcohol consumption. There are cultural norms behind the problems which the 11% of people the survey defines as problem drinkers have with their poison.

Off-licence prices in the Republic are much higher than ours. That differential is the main remaining driver for cross-border shopping, or for carrying out functions like weddings here, so there is an argument for preserving it.

The fact that drinking habits south of the border are much the same as here tends to undermine the argument that price will make a major long-term difference.

Cost counts, but a well thought-out public and health education campaign could have more effect on changing long-term habits than the blunt instrument of price hikes.

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