Minimum pricing means minimising choice

‘We will put a stop to the easy availability of cheap booze that has blighted Britain for too long. This is a comprehensive strategy to take back our town centres from the drunken thugs and to restore them to the law-abiding majority.’

So declared British home secretary Theresa May during a surprise ministerial announcement last Friday. This is only the fourth time in the past 10 years such an announcement has taken place on a Friday – the other times being about Libya, swine flu and Iraq. Critics have suggested that the timing of this announcement was a tactical attempt to divert attention from damaging stories about the budget, and they may well have a point. But given the heady rhetoric May was using, you could be forgiven for thinking that this ‘blight’ of cheap alcohol was on a par with declaring war or combating a putative pandemic.

This war on cheap booze comes despite the fact that levels of drinking in the UK are actually on the wane, rather on the rise. As I have pointed out previously on spiked, the increased hysteria about a boozing ‘epidemic’ in Britain actually coincides with a steady decline in per-capita consumption of alcohol since 2002. Since when was something an epidemic when the ‘problem’ is on the decline?

Such apparently trivial facts couldn’t stop May in full flow, however, as she painted a picture of drunken thugs running amok in town centres across Britain. The cause of this phenomenon, May said confidently, is the habit of ‘pre-loading’, a faux-scientific term for drinking loads of cheap booze at home before going out in order to save money in the pub. May proposes that slapping a minimum price of 40 pence – or maybe more, if the forthcoming consultation suggests it would be more effective – on every unit of alcohol, alongside banning special offers such as buy-one-get-one-free deals, could help solve the problem. If people could no longer afford to do this as readily, the logic seems to go, then they couldn’t get as trollied. Those weekend city-centre streets, so often compared to William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’, would become civilised, family-friendly places, perhaps similar to la passeggiata in Italy.

Except, of course, this is nonsense, as swathes of young people interviewed by the media have pointed out since the announcement. A few extra quid won’t stop people from getting trashed if they want to. They’ll either have to, as one girl told The Times, ‘buy less food’ and cut their spending on other things. Or, if the price gets prohibitively high, they will, as another told the paper, get more of their kicks from illegal drugs like ketamine, mephedrone or MDMA instead. It has also been suggested people would go back to home brewing, common in Scandinavian countries that have sky-high taxes on alcohol. The idea that, as the government argues, minimum pricing of 40p per unit will cause ‘50,000 fewer crimes each year and 9,000 fewer alcohol-related deaths over the next decade’ assumes that people won’t find alternative means to get mashed or find more money to pay for their drinks. 

Minimum pricing won’t stop binge drinking, but it could well make booze a lot more expensive for all of us. Of course, when May talks about targeting the ‘drunken thugs’, she means poorer people who don’t have enough cash to afford expensive pinot noir or prosecco - or the resources to find an extra £135 a year for alcohol, which is the amount minimum pricing is expected to hit heavy drinkers. Not that the poor are being singled out, however: the government has a barrage of intrusive strategies to try to curb middle-class drinking, too.

It would be a mistake, however, to think minimum pricing will only affect the bottom end of the booze market – the targeted ‘cheap vodka, super-strength ciders and special brew lagers’. In a market where people often judge the quality of the product by the price, the producers of premium brands are not going to sit back and do nothing when the price of Tesco Value Table Wine is forced to become the same as a bottle of Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc is today. They’ll likely be forced to also add a couple of pounds to the price tag in order to remain ‘premium’ in the eyes of consumers.

The meddling strategy of minimum pricing is unlikely to have the desired effect, and could well backfire, hitting all of our pockets. But leaving aside the massive practical failings of the proposal, there is a more fundamental issue at stake here: it should be no business of the state to decide on our behalf how much we have to drink on a Friday night or any other night of the week, for that matter.

Minimum pricing is a conscious attempt by the state to manipulate our choices for what ministers deem to be our own good. No end of ‘experts’ are wheeled out to justify the strategy, such as one researcher from the University of Sheffield arguing that a higher-than-proposed 50p per unit minimum charge would cause ‘a doubling of effect in terms of health outcomes and crime [decreasing]’. In the eyes of such ‘experts’ and government officials, projected improvements in health and crime outcomes allow them to ride roughshod over people’s ability to choose to let their hair down and drink as they see fit. But what if the ‘desired outcome’ people want is to get drunk and have fun, rather than staying sober and healthy?

What is wrong with cheap booze anyway? The fact that alcohol prices are low means that we have more money to spend on other things, which is surely a good thing? Cheap booze is only seen as a problem to the extent to which we are deemed to be incapable of purchasing it without necking it like maniacs. It is only with such a diminished sense of people’s ability to decide for themselves how much booze they drink that you can have the bizarre situation wherein government ministers brand supermarkets as ‘irresponsible’ for offering their products to consumers at low prices.

Minimum pricing treats us as irrational creatures, is likely to make booze more expensive across the board and is very unlikely to have the government’s desired effect of changing our drinking habits. We should be free to buy as much alcohol as we want without inflated prices. What we should not do is buy into the flimsy arguments of these meddling government ministers.