Old ideas are sometimes relaunched by employing a new language to disguise or mystify what they’re about. And so it is with puritanism. There’s no doubt that we’re seeing a resurgence of puritanism in a variety of disguised forms. The essence of puritanism is that pleasure is bad for you. Since many of our pleasures involve consuming things, this translates into consumption is bad for you. The locus of puritanical concern has, of course, been alcohol, and latterly processed foods with a high content of salt and sugar. And sugary drinks have also featured recently, with the introduction of a sugar tax looming many producers are reformulating their products – Irn Bru and Ribena seem to be getting a lot of attention on Twitter!
So, what’s behind this? What the New Puritans of Public Health want is to alter “the architecture of choice”, to nudge or coerce consumers into making ‘healthy choices’. The argument goes like this: people make free choices about whether to buy products in a market place, but are these choices really free? If products like alcohol, fizzy drinks and highly processed foods are everywhere available, then people are exercising their freedom to choose in an ‘intoxogenic’ and ‘obesogenic’ environment. In other words, free choice is exercised within a deterministic framework which the person making the choice cannot influence. And anyway, the argument goes, cunning marketing and advertising makes people buy things they don’t need by persuading them to want them!
I sometimes think that public health puritans live in a parallel universe. What they term the intoxogenic and obesogenic environment is merely the retail distribution system by another name. And since all of us are born into a society that existed before we did, and will exist after we’re gone, all choice is exercised within a deterministic framework.
So, how do public health puritans plan to alter the architecture of choice? Taking alcohol as an example, their measures include raising alcohol duty by more than inflation every year and introducing minimum unit pricing (MUP) – these are measures which reduce affordability, or “economic availability” as they often call it. In addition, they propose changes to the way in which the retail distribution system handles the product. This has been tried elsewhere, for example, in Australia you can’t buy alcohol from supermarkets, only from separate liquor stores. The same applies in Canada where most liquor stores are owned and operated by the government. Effectively the off-trade is a nationalised industry. In Scotland, where MUP will be introduced on the 1st May, there are demands being made to have separate alcohol aisles and checkouts for alcohol in supermarkets.
All these attempts at reconstructing the architecture of choice either make people poorer by raising prices, or they make shopping a more inconvenient and miserable experience. The likely effect will be to drive such sales online. So, changing the architecture of choice really means taking choice away or making it more expensive and more inconvenient. All in the name of healthy choices.
At some point I think there will be a consumer rebellion against this. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that MUP at 50p in Scotland will have a dramatic impact on prices. Some cider products will rise in price by as much as 90% and 70% of the alcohol units bought in the off-trade will see prices rise.
Will these price rises tip people out of the living room and into the tap room? The Scottish Licensed Trade Association certainly think so. They’ve been campaigning for government price intervention in the off-trade since the abolition of resale price maintenance in 1964. But it is simplistic to think that the price of alcohol is the only, or even the main thing that determines peoples’ decisions about whether to stay in or go out, and that the supermarket is the enemy of the on-trade. This is just crude Tesco-bashing and it ignores the fact that society has changed beyond recognition from the mid-1960s. Satellite TV, Netflix, computer games, the huge development of fast-food home delivery – all these things have transformed the home into a place to escape to, not from. It’s easy to get caught up in fighting yesterday’s battles whilst turning a blind eye to the complexities of the modern world.
I am aware of the problem of pre-loading, but I think this is more a product of later closing than cheap supermarket booze. And there is a new enemy on the horizon – one that threatens both sides of the trade: a puritanical public health lobby that is happy to drive a wedge between the on-trade and the off-trade. We can speculate whether MUP will or will not shift drinking back towards the pub and the bar, but we will know for certain whether this is the case in Scotland within the next 12 months.