Why minimum alcohol pricing is a terrible idea

Governments in both England and Scotland are planning minimum-pricing regimes for alcohol. These are a terrible idea, not only if you’re a liberal, but even on their own terms. There are three main issues associated with minimum pricing, all of which are conflated by minimum price proponents (this article is a good example of their muddled thinking, and indeed their sanctimony; this piece is expanded from a comment I left there).

1) is it reasonable to expect the government to take measures to reduce the harm that alcohol does to people who aren’t consenting adults?

Yes of course. Hence, tougher powers for councils to revoke the licenses of pubs and clubs associated with violent behaviour, tougher enforcement of bans on sales to minors, better treatment for domestically abusive alcoholics and support for their families, and so on are a good idea.

Nobody has come up with any evidence *at all* that minimum pricing would have any impact on this. Booze consumed in pubs and clubs is always going to be above any minimum price level that encompasses off-trade sales, because *that markup is what pays for the pub to exist*, so the town centre violence argument is nonsense; and bottle-a-day alkies are merely going to have less money to spend on other, less important things like food.

2) is it reasonable to expect the government to impose restrictive measures on consenting adults, based on the probability of health risks in later life *to the person being considered*?

Not in my opinion. If people choose to lower their life expectancy from 80 to 60 but have a better time on the way, that’s entirely their lookout.

This is where the puritan wing (‘teetotalitarians’) and the liberal wing of the left diverge: the puritans want to compel everyone else to live in the way that they view as most appropriate. Which, y’know, is pretty much exactly the same as religious fundamentalists compelling everyone else to live in the way that they view as most appropriate.

3) Even if you accept the puritan argument, is a minimum price a good way of achieving it?

Absolutely not, it’s a fucking terrible idea, because THE ECONOMIC BENEFITS OF THE POLICY GO TO THE BREWERS AND THE SUPERMARKETS. Suddenly, there’s a floor to price competition in the market, which means that everyone involved makes far more profit. This is what a cartel *is*.

If Cameron wasn’t in the industry’s pocket, he’d be suggesting that alcohol tax were raised to ensure that, based on the current lowest-cost production, all forms of booze cost at least 50p a unit (formal policy, actual rates reviewed every year based on what was available in the market). This would have the same impact on consumption of cheap booze as the proposed policy on drinking, whatever you think that impact may be, but the money raised would go to schools’n’hospitals rather than to Mr Tesco and Mr Heineken. At the same time, it would encourage people above the ‘cheap booze’ cutoff point to moderate their consumption, which is a desirable goal if you support the puritan argument (d’you think Christopher Hitchens drank cheap cider or Special Brew? Not exactly…)

The only reason to support a minimum price over higher tax is if you think the poor should have their lifestyle choices forcibly controlled by the state, but that the middle classes shouldn’t. In which case, you’re a bit of a scumbag, nah?

(disclosure as always: I’ve done consulting work for the drinks industry in the past and will probably do so in the future.)

9 thoughts on “Why minimum alcohol pricing is a terrible idea”

  1. Under your first heading, I think you've missed the point that a great many people drink heavily at home before they reach the pubs. This is especially the case with young female drinkers who will down bottles of wine while getting ready together. This culture has emerged in response to the large price differential between pubs and supermarkets, something minimum pricing would reduce.

    We should expect minimum pricing to reduce consumption, particularly home consumption among the young. This means more people arriving in town sober and drinking in relatively controlled environments. 

    Under the second heading the assertion that people choose to lower their life expectancy is tenuous at best. That humans are driven more by emotion than rationality, is a problem for liberal economists and libertarians generally. We are not good at assessing risk, especially when the danger is not immediate.  Long term health problems seem abstract. 

    I would assert that people set out looking for a good time and become alcoholic, or experience other health problems, after underestimating risk and overestimating their own capacity for alcohol.

    I doubt people set out to become alcoholic, unless they suffer romantic delusions,  but it happens. Having become alcoholic, addiction means they are incapable of rational decision making. It means they are incapable of reversing their lifestyle choice. 

    One of the reasons many libertarians dislike the NHS is that it means we all pay for others' mistakes and so have an interest in others' lifestyle choices. We shouldn't impose a particular lifestyle on anyone, but there's nothing wrong with a nudge or even the occasional shove.  

    On the third heading, I think we should relax about drinks industry profits. So what if they make more money?

    (I guess I should declare that I have also worked as a consultant to the drinks industry, particularly licensed retail, and also to the NHS, including public health.)

  2. On 1, you may have a point, although I'm sceptical about elasticity here. Surely the main impact this has is that people turn up in the pub later, rather than that they drink more?

    On 2, I'm not really discussing alcoholics, since they're not the people who account for the vast majority of the health impact (and are largely encompassed under 1 anyway). I'm referring to people who drink more than is healthy over a long period, and thereby face increased chances of stomach cancer, cirrhosis and so on, without actually being dependent on alcohol. Stereotypically, "everyone in France until 30 years ago". People in this group choose to drink.

    On 3, if we're launching a campaign to undo the Terrible Harm done by the booze industry, then it seems perverse that the impact should be that the booze industry makes more money than in the campaign's absence…

  3. Firstly, I agree with your basic point that minimum pricing is an insane idea. If the government thinks that alcohol is too cheap (for whatever reason) then it makes much more sense to raise tax on it – and put the money towards alcohol awareness education or extra staff in the A&E department or whatever might help deal with the problems they believe are caused by cheap booze. The primary beneficiary of minimum pricing is the alcohol companies whose additional profits will presumably be spent on trying to increase alcohol sales even further (i.e. the very people creating whatever problem it is the government claims to be trying to solve).

    Of course, the whole thing is rather academic from my perspective as I consume very little alcohol (not down to any puritan objection to intoxication, but because alcohol intoxication stopped agreeing with me a few years ago much to my dismay).

    I do disagree, however, with your implication in '2' that people are making rational choices with regards to the health impacts of alcohol. But I guess that comes back – yet again – to our ongoing disagreement about the levels of rationality exercised by the general public. You clearly see people as essentially rational beings with the occasional lapses into the irrational, whereas in my view it's the precise opposite. I believe we have the illusion of rationality thrust upon us by our conscious mind (for reasons which are complicated and aren't relevant to this discussion, but incidentally do make sense) but by and large it is just that… an illusion.

    People are not choosing to reduce their life expectancy by 20 years (if that is indeed what they are doing). Even those who are capable of rationally comprehending the consequences of their actions are not making that choice, because their actions are not, in the main, guided by rationality.

  4. I feel your analysis fails to acknowledge the rapid increase in alcohol consumption, especially amongst the young. With regard to hospital admissions, for example, NHS targets focus not on reducing the number of admissions but on reducing the rate of increase of admissions. 

    So people aren't simply turning up at the pub later, having drunk a similar amount of alcohol at home. They are arriving half cut or already drunk. 

    Jim is spot on when he points out that people are not particularly rational. But we do aspire to rationality and so  impose rational narratives on our actions in retrospect. 

    Individuals are choosing to drink more not because they have weighed long term health risks against short term pleasure, but because they have been born into a society that is trending toward greater alcohol consumption. Individual choice is largely an illusion as the desire to conform limits the range of choice considerably. 

    The more effective state response doesn't remove choice directly, but instead identifies trends and ways to disrupt those trends. 

  5. "Booze consumed in pubs and clubs is always going to be above any minimum price level […] so the town centre violence argument is nonsense"
    I've certainly *never* seen people drinking booze bought from an off licence in town, no no, that would never happen.

    "is it reasonable to expect the government to impose restrictive measures on consenting adults, based on the probability of health risks in later life *to the person being considered*?
    Not in my opinion."
    Yay, free ciggies for everyone!

    "(disclosure as always: I’ve done consulting work for the drinks industry in the past and will probably do so in the future.)"
    Excellent, now the industry is going to be MINTED there'll be no problem getting your invoices paid! Trebles all round!

  6. "I feel your analysis fails to acknowledge the rapid increase in alcohol consumption, especially amongst the young"

    That's because alcohol consumption peaked in 2003 and is now falling, especially among the young. Here, among many others.

    "I’ve certainly *never* seen people drinking booze bought from an off licence in town, no no, that would never happen."

    Harr. Yes, you get the occasional tramp, but the 2AM kebab-and-fight crowd don't, in my experience, tend to be BYO.

  7. If the government were to impose a tax on supermarket alcohol so as to create a minimum price, they could at least have the good grace to undo some of the damage that they've done to pubs, an industry that has been bent over a barrel by the government over the past decade. An afternoon in the pub watching the football can cost £15-£20, and that's drinking at a pace that for some would be rather moderate. No wonder people get a crate and sit at home to watch the footy, drinking more for less before hitting the town.

  8. d’you think Christopher Hitchens drank cheap cider or Special Brew?

    Well, Kingsley Amis was a big spesh-head.

    Also, I don't really think there is such a thing as a health risk from drinking that "only" affects the drinker. Dying young and complicatedly really fucks up people around you. And people who really are honest-to-goodness alcoholics tend to leave quite a trail of ex-wives and debt and general trouble.

    Points 1) and 3) are very good though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>