With minimum unit pricing (MUP) set to be introduced in Scotland in May, the puritans of the health lobby have been emboldened to push this policy out to the rest of the UK. The Welsh Assembly has been debating this issue in recent months and commissioned the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group (SARG) to produce a Welsh version of their model that depicts the effects of MUP at different price levels on consumption, harms and how many lives can be “saved” if MUP is introduced.
The SARG research predict 66 lives will be saved a year in Wales if a 50p minimum price is introduced. This assumes that people will respond to the imposition of higher prices in ways that seem implausible to many. One of the persistent criticisms of the SARG model are the assumptions it makes about ‘price elasticities of demand’ – assumptions about how much people will reduce their consumption in response to an increase in price. There are approximately 1,500 alcohol-related deaths a year in Wales so it seems unlikely that it will be possible to measure whether this claim of 66 lives saved annually is fulfilled or not.
The media has feigned shock at the claim that 75% of alcohol consumed in Wales is drunk by 22% of the population, who are defined as hazardous or harmful drinkers. And within that number are 3% who are the very heavy drinkers - accounting for 27% of alcohol consumed. Why this should surprise anyone is beyond me – “Shock, horror – most alcohol is drunk by people who drink the most” is a “dog bites postman moment” and a statement of the blindingly obvious.
Let’s put these figures into perspective. About 20% of Welsh adults don’t drink at all. 58% drink at or below the government’s low-risk guideline of 14 units a week (less than a pint of beer a day). So, that’s 78% at no risk or virtually no risk. Only 22% consume more than 14 units a week including 3% “harmful drinkers” – defined as drinking 50+ units a week for men, and 35+ units a week for women. Only in the oddball world of the activist academics of SARG is a person drinking a couple of pints a day classified as a “hazardous drinker”.
The focus of harm-prevention really ought to be on the 3% of harmful drinkers, yet the Welsh Government has accepted that minimum pricing won’t help these drinkers, who most likely have an alcohol dependency. MUP is a policy which the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said will raise the price of 70% of off-trade sales. So MUP isn’t targeted at people at greatest risk, but at those who, by the standards recognised by most people, are light to moderate drinkers.
MUP isn’t about targeting those most at risk, it’s about denormalising the use of alcohol and pricing it out of reach. The minimum price will only ever go up. Those reading this who are thinking: “Good, about time we bashed Tesco” need to realise three things: Firstly, that denormalising the use of alcohol will affect all sections of the trade. Secondly, making alcohol more expensive in the off-trade may reduce consumption a bit, but it will also reduce consumers’ discretionary spend overall and that is likely to mean less money to spend on going out. The notion that MUP will tip people out of the living room and into the tap room is a health lobby lie. Thirdly, now that the genie of minimum pricing is out of the bottle, how long will it be before government regulators – national or local - apply a higher MUP to the on-trade?
Talking of which: the government in the Isle of Man is now considering introducing MUP. Chief Constable Gary Roberts appeared at the opening of the triennial licensing courts, which sees licensees applying to renew their alcohol permits. Addressing the court, Mr Roberts said a new substance misuse strategy from the government looks likely to introduce a minimum price per unit for alcohol.
He told the licensing bench such a move would “save lives and help the on-licence trade regain its vibrancy.”
The same lies are being perpetrated by health lobby puritans wherever this “silver bullet” policy is proposed. It is always presented as a pub-friendly proposition, when in reality it is the thin end of the wedge. If even a rinky-dink assembly like the Tynwald can introduce this for the off-trade, what odds would you take for it being introduced by the UK Parliament for England – and then spreading to the on-trade, because a city council like Newcastle decides it’s needed to curtail binge drinking in the night-time economy.
For those who think I’m scare-mongering, I have three words: the smoking ban.