Minimum Unit Pricing is probably the most regressive, illiberal, and outright snobbish policy being debated by parliament today, yet it enjoys near universal political support from the NUS and the Labour party on the left, to the Tories on the right. The problem is, the support is based on junk science, state-funded lobbying and outright prejudice against the poorest. The policy of imposing a minimum price of 45p per unit of alcohol will nearly double the cost of a bottle of Sainsbury’s Basics Cider, put an extra 2 quid on a 70cl bottle of Vodka and will raise the price of a bottle of wine to around £4.20.
The policy claims to target heavy drinkers who binge on supermarket booze, although not heavy drinkers who binge on fine wine or whisky. Advocates claim evidence such as that from the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model, which claims it will reduce alcohol related deaths by over 1000 per year.
This speculative model assumes that a minimum price of 50p will lead to a reduction in alcohol consumption of 6.7 percent, causing 3,060 fewer deaths per year. Yet between 2005 and 2010 weekly alcohol consumption declined by 20%, while alcohol related deaths were unchanged. Others might like to point to evidence from British Columbia, yet hospital admissions for alcohol overdoses since the policy’s introduction have increased by 18%.
The policy is also highly regressive, squeezing the pay packets of the poorest in our society and increasing inequality. As the wealthy and middle classes tend to buy alcohol that is already above the minimum price, this policy won’t affect them. The poorest however will be forced to either cutback on the drink or on spending elsewhere.
Economic analysis suggests that alcohol consumption is unresponsive to price changes; a 50% increase in the cost of cider won’t lead to a 50% fall in consumption. This means less money for keeping the heating on, cooking healthy food, and buying schoolbooks. The regressive nature of the policy could have the unintended consequence of harming public health.
The policy will hurt students, making the NUS’ support of it even more ponderous. With clubbing and drinking such an important part of student culture, an increase in the price of drinking will either lead to one of two things happening: students avoiding safer drinking environments like pubs and instead pre-drinking at home, or students purchasing black market booze. Gaff’s may have gone dry, but where there’s demand there’s supply. Again, this could make public health outcomes worse, the Government’s failure to investigate either of these possibilities is damning.
Advocates claim that this policy will shift drinking from supermarket booze to the safer drinking environment of the pub, where drunks are refused service. But a recent YouGov poll suggested the opposite will be true. Four out of ten respondents said it’ll lead them to drink less at the pub, while just 0.36% said they would drink more at the pub. The logic behind this is obvious: when a heavy drinker sees the cost of a can of Special Brew increase from £1 to £1.35, he isn’t going to rush down to the local and spend £3.50 on a pint of weaker beer.
Even if this policy could achieve its goals of reducing alcohol consumption through higher prices it would be wrong to do so. Drinkers already pay for the social cost of drinking through heavy taxes on alcohol (£1 on a £2.50 pint). The costs to the NHS and the police are more than met by the heavy taxes. The other costs associated with drinking, such as lower productivity and worse health outcomes are borne by the individual not society. Drinkers choose to drink in spite of the large costs because they consider the benefits to outweigh the costs.
Adults should be free to pursue their own happiness in whatever way they choose provided they do not burden others unfairly. Minimum Unit Pricing restricts your ability to do that, because the modern-day temperance lobby believes you’re making the wrong choice. The idea that the poor can’t decide what is best for themselves is a Victorian attitude that’s sadly back in fashion. We have councils forcing benefit claimants to go to the gym, the DWP investigating stopping jobseekers from spending their benefits on booze and fags and we have Minimum Unit Pricing, which attempts to price the poorest out of drinking.
To impose legislation that restricts choice like this represents a fundamental failure to treat people as equals. Suggesting that some people have less of a right to consume what they want should offend our liberal values, doubly so because of its basis in class. Minimum Unit Pricing won’t make the public healthier; it won’t help pubs and it won’t save the public money. It will make the poorest poorer and boost the illegal trade. It should be last orders for the nanny state.