By Keiran Neild- Ali, grassroots assistant
Britain is a nation of pint guzzlers, wine quoffers and gin and tonic sippers. Whether it is the joy of a pint in the glory of a sunlit beer garden (or, at the moment with social distancing, in your own garden!) or a glass of mulled wine in the cold winter months, we love our alcohol. As with most unhealthy habits, we all agree that drinking should be done in moderation. But we don’t need the government to enforce that by interfering in the pricing of alcohol. It’s unfair, excessive and disadvantages moderate drinkers on lower incomes.
Traditionally, taxes have been used to increase the price of alcohol to reduce our consumption to a level the state deems desirable. Recently, Scotland has pioneered a new policy to reduce alcohol consumption with Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP). MUP can be characterised as a “price threshold that is uniformed across all alcohol products.” It is a price intervention, aiming to raise the cost of cheap alcohol. It is not, we are told, a revenue raiser. It is solely focused on ‘improving public health outcomes’. The MUP is set at 50 pence. Before the MUP, it was possible to buy 14 units of ‘lower risk alcohol’ for approximately £2.50. With MUP in place, 14 units cannot be legally sold for less than £7.
After Scotland introduced MUP in 2018, the Welsh government followed suit in 2020, and spent a significant amount letting people know. It now falls to England to reject MUP and drown out the voices that call for its implementation. However tempting it is to impose higher prices on cheap alcohol to discourage overdrinking, we ought to call time on the compulsory price rise.
Firstly, MUP cannot claim any success in reducing alcohol consumption, since alcohol related deaths were already declining in Scotland before MUP. Secondly, it affects affordable, not cheap booze. It's a regressive price increase on alcoholic beverages that millions of Brits consume. It is not limited to off-brand scrumpy in an off-licence. Finally, even if the policy does succeed in cutting drinking, massively reduced alcohol consumption will be a potential death knell for small shopkeepers and great British breweries and distilleries.
Introducing MUP, the Scottish government aimed to “reduce consumption of cheap ciders and value spirits with high alcohol content”, indicating that harmful drinkers were consumers on lower incomes suffering from deprivation. Proponents of the MUP are in high spirits, as figures suggest alcohol consumption in Scotland has decreased.
But we need to dive deeper into the statistics. Although Scotland is still suffering from the highest rate of alcohol specific deaths in the UK, the ONS notes that “Scotland has seen the largest decrease in its rates since they peaked in the early 2000s” - good news for the MUP advocates you might think. But there was a declining trend in alcohol related deaths in 2015, before MUP was introduced. Alcohol related death rates were declining in conjunction with alcohol prices in the UK being a full 60 per cent more affordable than in 1980. A simple explanation of higher prices equals lower deaths is not supported by the evidence.
For reduced consumption to lead to reduced harm, it needs to be the potentially excessive and vulnerable consumers who are drinking less. But there is no guarantee that raising prices will reduce consumption amongst vulnerable drinkers in the long term. Based on older reports, it is likely that youth consumption will decrease the most as younger adolescent drinkers are more price sensitive than older drinkers. This leaves older drinkers less affected by the price rises. Chris Snowdon of the IEA has done great work debunking the MUP myths. His recent blog also questions whether heavy drinkers will stop drinking because of MUP.
Since MUP is a relatively new policy, we will not see data that proves vulnerable drinkers are consuming less for the foreseeable future. However, even if the MUP is a success, evidence suggests that outpricing alcohol abusers from consuming alcohol will only lead them to consume other cheaper and more harmful substances. According to a survey conducted by the Journal of Alcoholism & Drug Dependence, “higher alcohol prices resulted in increased consideration of illicit substances as an alternative, indicating a substitution effect.”
Despite the insistence that only cheap alcohol will be targeted with price rises, this is evidently not the case. Hard working taxpayers are entitled to wet their whistle after a long week at work. The MUP has not targeted cheap alcohol, it has raised the price of affordable booze. The 50p minimum price means a 70cl bottle of whisky cannot be sold for less than £14 in Scotland - a £4 rise. Twelve cans of Aldi lager was £6.29, it is now £10.82. The Daily Mail outlined more details of the effect of MUP on your favourite tipple.
Aldi lager may not be a premium brand, but it is hardly the moonshine that people think of as cheap booze consumed by the most desperate. The MUP has cost the sensible drinker an extra £4.53 for the enjoyment of a cold tin, an expensive addition to a weekly shop. Of course, Bolinger and the Moet will still be sold at the same price to the public health officials fortunate enough to receive a six figure salary.
It is no coincidence that moderate Scottish drinkers have turned to England for affordable alcohol. Since MUP was introduced, a conspicuous rise in alcohol sales has been recorded in both Carlisle and Berwick. Scots are nipping across the border for affordable drink, but the UK on the whole already has a high cost for alcohol.
British drinkers already pay 42.7 per cent more than the EU average for alcohol, making our booze the fourth most expensive in the EU. This is because of the huge beer tax drinkers in Britain are forced to pay. Although MUP isn't a revenue raiser for the government, it still aims to reduce consumption by ramping up costs for producers and consumers alike. The intervention, therefore, also poses another huge threat to off-licences and breweries already buckling under high taxes. If it does succeed in reducing consumption, there will be knock on impacts. Basic economics tells us that reduced consumption means lower sales, reduced production, lower profit margins and less investment in jobs and distilleries across the UK.
Alcohol is no ordinary commodity. Consuming it in moderation is key to a healthy life balance. However, the MUP does not help the most vulnerable alcohol abusers. Instead, it increases the cost of affordable alcohol for moderate drinkers and reduces sales, which hurts a huge British industry. Some vulnerable drinkers may consume less alcohol, but they are likely to turn to other more harmful substances available on the cheap black market.
MUP is not a panacea, just another virtue signalling act of paternalism which is ruining the enjoyment of millions of sensible drinkers across Scotland and now Wales. With alcohol already an expensive commodity relative to other developed nations, the last thing we need is for England to jump on the nanny state bandwagon.
1. Katikireddi, SV., Hilton, S., Bonell, C., Bond, L. . Understanding the Development of Minimum Unit Pricing of Alcohol in Scotland: A Qualitative Study of the Policy Process. PLOS ONE. 2014.
2. Scottish Government. Minimum Unit Pricing, Scottish Government. 2018. Available at: https://www.gov.scot/Topics/Health/Services/Alcohol/minimum-pricing
4. Office of National Statistics. Alcohol-related deaths in the UK: registered in 2015. 2017. Available at:https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/causesofdeath/bulletins/alcoholrelateddeathsintheunitedkingdom/registeredin2015#comparisons-between-the-4-countries-of-the-uk-by-sex-1994-to-2015
5. Institute of Alcohol Studies. How has the Cost of Alcohol Changed Over Time. 2015. Available at: http://www.ias.org.uk/Alcohol-knowledge-centre/Price/Factsheets/How-has-the-cost-of-alcohol-changed-over-time.aspx
6. Laixuthai, A., Chaloupka, F.J. Youth Alcohol Use and Public Policy. Contemporary Economic Policy .11,1993.
7. Miller, P.G., Droste, N. Alcohol Price Considerations on Alcohol and Illicit Drug Use in University Students. Journal of Alcoholism Drug Dependency, 2013.