Minimum Pricing

I will readily admit that my knee-jerk reaction to a minimum alcohol pricing was a firm and semi-outraged NO. What right have the government to make my life more expensive when a pint down the pub is already close-on £3.50? 40p per unit of alcohol? I’m not a heavy drinker by any standards but a swift stamping-down was in order. Rally the troops!

Back to reality. 40p a unit is nothing – it’s not putting 40p on the price of every unit in a drink, just ensuring that there is 40p in the price per unit of alcohol. Once I thought about it I couldn’t see many drinks that the rule would actually affect: Sainsbury’s Basics vodka, perhaps, and Frosty Jack’s Fake Rancid Cider, definitely – neither of which I drink but that are a staple for binge drinking culture. In fact, I suspect that the cost-per-unit idea doesn’t go far enough;* it won’t make a difference to £1 doubles night, for example, and I can tell you first-hand that £1 doubles are a deadly thing indeed.

Something so deeply ingrained in the national habit as alcohol is never going to be the easiest thing to address, but I think a 40p-per-unit requirement is a decent first step that targets only those buying in units rather than drinks. I honestly cannot name anyone who enjoys the taste of Frosty Jacks or budget vodka, but I can name plenty of people who have drunk the stuff (myself included). If it were the same price as a better quality vodka/cider, then the choice would be obvious. The only risk I can see here is that the overall price of all supermarket alcohol will rise as the lowest denominator does – Smirnoff will raise prices to avoid association with Asda Smartprice – but that is something I reckon will only affect spirits. Supermarkets don’t tend to have own-brand wines and beers and so that negative image will not apply. Finally, the ‘percentage creep’ of wines and beers should reach a ceiling. The benefits are manifold. Make it law. Brilliant.

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*Of course, it would never get passed if it went far enough to put an end to binge drinking, and probably with good reason for all the moderate drinkers out there.

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11 responses to “Minimum Pricing

  1. Ha! I think minimum pricing should have brought in long ago for the aforementioned reasons – but I’m sure that doesn’t surprise you.

  2. Supermarkets do do own-brand wine and beer etc, from the basic “Red Table Wine” to “Tesco Finest” or whatever. Particularly wines in boxes. Asda, for example, do a 2.25 litre box of Peenoh Greeeeeejoh for a tenner, or a nice bottle of Soave for £3.48.

    Assuming 9 units in a bottle of wine, 40p per unit takes us up to £3.60 so that Soave will no longer be allowed to be sold! (That’s assuming it’s about 13%, which it may not be.) This is of course not really a problem, since I’d wager it tastes like antifreeze.

    I would like to see fewer promotions such as “buy 20 cans of Stella for 2 quid and we’ll give you a free wifebeater”, rather than raised prices of alcohol in general.

  3. Oh, and 1 litre of Asda vodka is currently £13.87. Assuming 40 units in a bottle, it will be at least £16.

    I feel a bit nauseous just talking about cheap vodka, actually…

  4. Tesco et al have been pushing for this for a while. They currently use special offers on booze to get people to go to their shops; setting a minimum price would curtail that, and so increase their margins on alcohol…

    Irrespective of that though, this is a vile and pernicious policy for the simple reason that It’s none of the government’s business what individuals do to themselves. If someone wants to drink alcohol – even to excess – then as long as they’re only harming themselves, it’s no-one else’s business. If they do end up harming others, then we already have laws for that…

    Here is something worth reading on the matter.

    • It’s a good article, but it focuses rather heavily on alcoholism (which I agree this 40p/unit idea or indeed any other price/unit will not prevent in the slightest).* I am thinking more about students (a demographic with which I am relatively familiar!) whom I can easily see drinking less if it is even slightly more expensive. I certainly drink less if the drinks are pricey, and whilst I’m sure you agree than an n=1 study is pretty weak, I think that many students (and indeed the population at large) would agree. Additionally, I would argue that the cost increase of alcohol (which is nearly all cases is pretty minimal and at maximum for cheap spirits seems to be about £3 or so) will only prove a financial burden to those buying cheap alcohol in quantities sufficient to cause harm. A household of two people shouldn’t be getting through 40 units of alcohol in a week, let alone two bottles of basics vodka.**

      As for the cost of alcohol, this is difficult to quantify outside of the supermarket drinks section. If you totaled the cost of drunks in police time and A&E attendances, let alone the cost of future health (read: liver) problems that are on a steady rise in this country, then you would come out with a staggering figure.

      The harm argument you use works up to a point, but prevention is better than cure. You don’t want to have a drunk assault someone, regardless of the efficiency of the police response, if you can avoid it – prevention saves police time and therefore public money. From a friendly point of view, it also saves someone getting beaten up, which is always nice.

      Ironically, I’ve written this after a couple of cans of cider on a Friday night, so anything that doesn’t hang together I attribute to that. The cider I drank is the cheapest nice-ish cider in the shop (i.e. not a white cider) and would not have changed price under the 40p/unit rule!

      *although, I could see that if alcohol is more expensive, a number of people who end up as alcoholic might not get there in the first place. Speculative, but an entirely reasonable idea.
      **as for the house of 4, I’m assuming the kids don’t drink much vodka and that when they do start drinking the tend to buy their own.

      • No, my point is that it’s not down to the government to say what people should or shouldn’t do to themselves. If people want to get staggeringly drunk, then it’s up to them really (yes, there’s a policing cost; but there’s a policing cost to lots of things where crowds form. Football matches cost a lot to police, but I don’t think we should discourage them so we can reduce the police budget…). Whether or not minimum pricing could actually work is a secondary matter in my book; that it’s incredibly illiberal is a good enough reason to discard the idea.

        (That said, on the topic of saving money, there’s research – this for instance – which suggests that healthy people cost significantly more, because they tend to live longer. Not that this is an argument for letting people drink and smoke and eat too much, that it’ll save money; I just think it’s interesting)

  5. The difference between football and alcohol is, of course, that alcohol is also harmful as a substance whereas football is not. The confluence of the two things is somewhat unfortunate as drunk football fans can be rather problematic. I also would not be angling for a reduced police budget – rather, the police time currently spent arresting people for petty alcohol-related crime can instead be put towards more serious fare.

    Would you say that the (extremely) heavy tax on smoking is an illiberal policy? By your standards, it is, but I would also argue that smoking is something that should be taxed to the hilt because it’s a cost burden to the country that and that deficit needs making up. The difference between this and the minimum pricing is that minimum pricing doesn’t affect pubs and bars (where a tax increase would) and whilst increasing supermarket profit margins, those profits are taxed so money comes back.

    As for the paper…it’s interesting but has a pretty limited scope. It uses hypothetical people based on a validated mathematical model, with limited ranges of both risk factors and levels of obesity. Reassuringly these limitations are noted by the authors, particularly the idea that there is no simulated data used for any BMI >35 (important because the risk of obesity-related morbidity scales with weight). As an aside, it takes into account the full cost of care homes in the elderly (not part of the UK health budget for all). There are various other limitations mentioned, but you can read the paper as well as I can.

    Finally, the last paragraph is quite important, pointing out first that the aim of healthcare is not to save money but to prevent suffering, and that:
    “In this respect it is interesting to note that in the area of smoking cessation and weight loss, favorable cost-effectiveness results have been shown even if medical costs in life-years gained are taken into account [22,26,33]. Prevention may therefore not be a cure for increasing expenditures—instead it may well be a cost-effective cure for much morbidity and mortality.”

    Good find though, interesting read.

    • No, I don’t favour the tax on smoking either, for much the same reason (although that at least sort of makes some logical sense, unlike minimum pricing on alcohol).

      I don’t think it’s necessarily true that smokers are a cost burden, I think more research needs to be done to ascertain whether that’s actually true (or maybe it has been done, and I just don’t know about it; but things like the article I linked to last time suggest to me that it’s not true). But for the sake of argument lets say that smoking is a cost burden, and that the tax exists to recover that cost.

      In that case the system is inconsistent. We should also levy taxes on things like riding a bike, rock climbing, or even just attending a gym. Because all of those things increase your risk of injury, and therefore cause more health expenditure. Personally I don’t think that makes practical sense, but if we start to levy taxes so as to recover the cost of healthcare, then we shouldn’t be selective about what activities we tax.

      For better or for worse, we have a universal health system, with contributions defined by your ability to pay rather than your lifestyle or general health. If we really do wish for the cost of healthcare to reflect things like this, then I suppose it could be argued that what we probably need is an American-style health insurance system – as distinct from the European-style health insurance system which the government has tried to use as a model for its reforms – that accounts for lots of different factors rather than targeting those which are politically expedient.

      Lots of activities might cause you to need extra treatment; I don’t think it’s fair or consistent to only target some for extra payment. Levy taxes on all risks (impractical), or change to a completely different type of health system (i.e. abandon the concept of universal health; unpopular), or accept that some people will cost more than others over the course of their lifetime as an inherent part of this type of health system.

      P.S. On the subject of leaving the police more time to deal with serious crimes, I would argue that the best way to do this would be to legalise drugs. I shudder to think how much time and money they must waste on that each year…

      • The difference is in the margins – the paper in your previous comment placed smoking-related disease as costing roughly 3.7% of the Dutch health budget and obesity-related disease at 2.0%. Those are significant figures when the budget runs to £105bn. The % of the budget spent on rock-climbing related injuries I can’t find figures for, unsurprisingly, and that’s because it will be vanishingly low. Riding bikes and attending gyms will also have percentage costs that are orders of magnitude lower than obesity and smoking related ones. Not only that, but the treatment for the majority of gym and bike related injuries is not that expensive – broken limbs are cheap, even major orthopaedic surgery is cheap when you only have to do it once. It’s the chronic diseases that cost the NHS the most. Aside to that, driving a car or motorbike, (which can cause the upper level of severe injury and result in reams of time off work and consequent economic loss) is taxed, both through petrol and road tax, although admittedly not for NHS purposes.

        Don’t forget that to tax something costs money. The law of diminishing returns would rapidly take care of any profit that you made, the further down the activity disease chain you go.

        Either way, if you stay with the fact that the purpose of healthcare is to prevent and mitigate suffering, then a preventative measure like high taxes on cigarettes or minimum alcohol pricing makes perfect sense from a healthcare prospective. Even at cost, the personal suffering of people with lung cancer (and basically every other type of cancer), diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, heart failure or heart attacks (and the list goes on) is a very good reason to spend the money in a preventative fashion.

        As for cannabis…yes, legalise that. There are probably a few legal highs that could stand to be re-legalised as well, but the more damaging drugs I think need to remain the subject of intense police scrutiny.

  6. Chronic diseases cost the most to treat, yes. But someone who dies earlier will then not need any more money spending on them. And not just in healthcare; if someone dies at 65, as opposed to 95, then they will have avoided spending a couple of decades in retirement, which is basically all consumption with very little production.

    Exercise *is* a cost to the NHS. How much is spent treating aches, sprains, and broken limbs that result from people doing exercise? I’d bet it’s a lot; probably a good proportion of admissions to A&E and a good proportion of GP visits. Each individually costs less, but they happen pretty often.

    As for “taxing something costs money”, like I said, if we want to account for lifestyle costs in healthcare, we should really switch to a full (private) health insurance system.

    All of which is beside the point. It is not the place of any healthcare professional, or politician, to try to coerce people to behave in a way that they think is better. People should be allowed to make their own decisions on something as basic as what to do with their own bodies, and I think it’s pretty vile that other people try to get in the way of that. Even if people do often choose to do things which are unhealthy.

    You say that the purpose of healthcare is to prevent and mitigate suffering. If people freely want to smoke or drink or eat unhealthily, then if we try to make them not do those things, aren’t we forcing suffering upon them? Because we’re forcing them to do things they don’t really want to do. It’s a different type of affliction, but it’s an affliction nonetheless.

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