Balancing act of alcohol pricing

25 January, 2018

And so it came to pass. After years of legal wrangling led by the Scotch Whisky Association and the Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins, among others, the UK Supreme Court has had its final say, allowing the Scottish government to go ahead with its policy of setting a minimum price for alcohol.

It’s fair to say a significant majority of the drinks industry is more than a little concerned by what is arguably the single most significant piece of booze-related legislation since Gorbachev’s dry law campaign in the dying days of the Soviet Union and certainly since France’s Loi Évin was enacted in the early 1990s.

But should it be? Who in the wine trade, where the talk for years has been about trading up and dragging consumers and retailers up and out of the kind of pricepoints that are barely sustainable for producers, can seriously lament the demise of a whole sector of cheap and cheerless wines? Under the Scottish proposals, the cheapest 12% wine on shelf will be £4.69. And, with duty and VAT as heavy as it is in the UK, even that price point is off-limits to all but the most desperate of conscientious producers. And yet… I find I can’t really share in Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s joy in victory. There is something about the policy that makes me deeply uneasy, for two reasons.

It strikes me this is yet another example of government policy that confuses the causes and effects of social problems, while at the same time being profoundly patronising to the poorest members of society. What is the principal cause of problem drinking in Scotland (or, indeed, anywhere else)? Is it the existence of cheap alcohol? Or is it the existence of persistent pockets of extreme poverty and deprivation, a resistance to tackling the deep-rooted cultural association of hard drinking with good times and masculinity, and a failure to invest in social outreach and education? I think we know the answer. We also know which is the easier and more eye-catching route a government might take to giving the impression that something is being done. In the meantime, the many non-problematic, cash-strapped drinkers are being asked to pay more for this simple pleasure.

My second problem for MUP is that this quasi-prohibitionist policy is yet another concession to an increasingly emboldened anti-alcohol mob incapable of understanding the millennia-deep roots alcohol has in society, its cultural richness, and the joy it brings to countless millions of people all over the world. There is no evidence moderate drinking is unhealthy – on the contrary, it seems moderate daily consumption has many significant health benefits.

There is also the question of whether Scotland’s 50p-per-unit proposal will even work. The precedents of draconian anti-alcohol policies aren’t exactly promising, as even the zealously anti-alcohol Gorbachev has come to admit. “The sobering up of society cannot be done in one swing. We should not have shut down trade, provoking moonshine production,” Gorbachev told the Russian press in 2015, 30 years after his own (admittedly more radical) experiment in restricting consumption began. And, in words that should give the Scottish government at least some pause for thought, he added, “Everything should have been done gradually. Not by [putting] an axe to the head.”

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