Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Banning bargain booze.

If “work is the curse of the drinking classes,” as Oscar Wilde would have us believe, then we may soon have to work a bit harder for our drinks. The government is embarking on a ten week consultation on the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol of 45p per unit, alongside a ban on multi-buy discount offers and the buy-one-get-one-free promotion, in an attempt to avert Britain’s binge drinking culture.

Research at the University of Sheffield, and apparently not just students getting hammered and nicking traffic cones, revealed that a minimum price of 50p per unit would reduce alcohol consumption by 6.7%, saving about 20,000 hospital admissions a year. Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Alliance UK, who had been pushing for the 50p minimum, said that; "evidence shows us that heavy drinkers and young drinkers are more affected by higher alcohol prices than moderate drinkers.”

Evidence may well show that, but so does common sense. When something is made more expensive, it becomes more difficult to afford for those who buy more of it, or have less cash to splash to start with. I hope a lot of money was not spent on that research, because we are going to need plenty to offset the £200 million in lost duty revenue, according to a Home Office impact assessment, if these mooted measures are eventually introduced.

On the other shaky hand of course, we do have a problem. Alcohol abuse accounted for 1,168,300 hospital admissions in the UK in 2010/11, double the numbers from 2002/3. According to government figures, some 167,764 prescriptions were issued for the treatment of alcohol dependency in 2011, costing the NHS £2.49 million. If you also care to calibrate the accumulated cost of heart disease, liver cirrhosis, and the other assorted ailments attributed to extended exposure to alcohol, and add that to Britain’s burgeoning bar bill, it is clear that we actually have a problem of Oliver Reed proportions.

However, is increasing the cost of booze really going to curb excessive consumption? Politicians and medical practitioners seem keen to give it a try, and why wouldn’t they be? MPs earn £65,738 and the average GP pockets £104,100, easily enough to insulate oneself against any pesky state-enforced sobriety through prescriptive price hikes. I find it frighteningly naïve to believe the more socially disadvantaged drinker will eschew his evening tipple in favour of a hot mug of herbal tea just because its price tag doubles. I fear instead that he will end up just as drunk, but his family twice as poor.   

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