Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Hiking the price of alcohol won’t deter the binge drinkers

Would a minimum price for our booze help in the fight against widespread alcoholism? Retail expert Donald McFetridge is not so sure...

Not for the first time, the devolved Scottish government are attempting to be the first in the world to introduce a minimum price for a unit of alcohol in an attempt to prevent shops from selling cheap lager and cider.



Remember, Scotland was the first region in the UK to introduce the smoking ban and it looks as if they could very well be successful with their most recent campaign which aims to solve the massive problem of excessive under-age drinking, particularly among minors. Alcohol Concern has openly stated that: “Introducing a minimum price for alcohol is the only effective way to deter risky and harmful drinkers who tend to rely on low-cost alcohol.”

Interestingly, other leading campaign groups have also called on the Government to roll out a minimum pricing policy across the rest of Britain, so it could well be the case that Northern Ireland will soon face calls for similar restrictions in this part of the world even though we tend to lag somewhat behind our Scottish neighbours in terms of pure volume of alcohol consumed per person.

Worth noting is the fact that alcohol misuse annually costs the NHS and justice system approximately £25 billion. Even more interesting is the fact that the problem is most acute north of the border, with the average Scot reputedly drinking the equivalent of 125 bottles of wine every year. Scotland, we are told, is in eighth position for the world’s worst record in alcohol consumption.

However, detractors of the proposal say they believe the measure called for would have little real positive effect on the social group being targeted and suggest that it would do nothing other than to punish ordinary shoppers. The guy who likes the odd pint or the white wine social drinker could find themselves paying considerably more for their occasional tipple. And, why should they? One day we are told that a glass of red wine is good for the health; the next day it’s dangerous and could lead to certain types of cancer. Who, or what, are we to believe?

Under the proposed scheme for Scotland, alcohol could not be sold below a minimum price per unit. This price has yet to be set, but Scottish ministers have already suggested a level of circa 40p. Some detractors are, perhaps rather prematurely, suggesting that it should be even higher.

Even with a minimum level of 40p per unit, this would mean that a bottle of 13% ABV wine could not be sold for less than £3.90, a six-pack of 4% lager would cost £4.22, and a bottle of 40% whisky would cost at least £11.20. But would this be enough to stop those who use low-cost alcohol from consuming in quite the quantities to which they are currently accustomed? Doubtless, it would have some effect but many suggest that only the more sensible drinkers would suffer through having to pay more for their occasional drink.

It is important, however, to ask the basic question. Would this help to stop underage or excessive drinking? Not surprisingly, the answer to this question appears to be a resounding no. Arguably, underage or excessive drinkers will always be able to find a way or means of funding their habit. Even if prices are raised and age restrictions imposed (it has been proposed to encourage shops to sell alcohol only to those aged 21 and over), dedicated drinkers would most likely scrimp on other purchases in order to be able to continue drinking.

Canada already has minimum prices for alcoholic beverages based on the type of drink involved, but Scotland will become the first country in the world to introduce a standard system calculated purely by alcoholic strength when it is introduced later this year.

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Health Minister, said: “Plummeting prices and aggressive promotion have led to a surge in consumption, causing — and adding to — health problems. The time has come for serious action.”

Academic research by a leading UK university has demonstrated, in a recent study, that by introducing a minimum price of 40p per unit, consumption fell by 2.6% and also resulted in 40,000 fewer hospital admissions per year. This research is obviously well worthy of serious consideration. Anything which can be done to reduce excessive or dangerous alcohol consumption is to be welcomed.

Sadly, not everyone shares this point of view. For instance, the proposal has been severely criticised by the Portman Group — the social responsibility body for UK drinks producers. The Portman Group claims that by introducing this measure it will punish all drinkers while only “ scratching at the surface of our drinking culture”.

It seems to me that the only people likely to benefit from the introduction of a minimum price per unit for alcohol will be the supermarkets themselves and other shops and off-licences selling strong liquor.

However, could it possibly have the opposite effect and teach us all a good lesson: to re-consider our alcohol consumption levels in true Shakespearean fashion — measure for measure!

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