Minimum pricing: for or against?

Among the many things we have to keep abreast of being MW students are the various ‘hot topics’ in the wine world. These include things like climate change, fraud, supply and demand (an interesting one this as we have recently moved from oversupply to under supply) and contentious issues such as minimum pricing. Minimum pricing in the UK is currently being evaluated by parliament and a decision is due sometime in May, though if reports of a couple of weeks ago are to be believed, it seems that things are not progressing smoothly.

So, what are the arguments for minimum pricing? Well, figures from 2010 show that the cost of treating alcohol-related diseases in the UK was £2.7billion. Added to this can be other diverse costs such as to policing, child welfare, the justice system as well as private costs to individuals and private property. All of which adds up to a pretty significant cost to the economy. The government has estimated that a 45p minimum unit price would cut alcohol consumption by 3.3%, reduce the number of crimes by 5000 annually and reduce hospital admissions by 24,000. Which sounds pretty good doesn’t it?

However, from my point of view, it is the other side of the argument that presents the stronger case. For a start, when debating minimum pricing it must first be determined that a) raising prices will reduce average consumption and that b) reducing average consumption will reduce harm. Alcohol consumption is already decreasing in the UK – since 2004 it has reduced by 13% and is predicted to decline by another 5% by 2018 without minimum pricing. But, while average consumption has been decreasing, harm from alcohol consumption is not – as a Saturday night out in any town centre will show you. This quite clearly shows that reducing consumption doesn’t necessarily reduce harm. 40% of the alcohol drunk in the UK is consumed by 10% of the population. It is these heavy drinkers that the government is most trying to influence with this policy. And yet, there is no research to show that raising prices will cause these heavy drinkers to drink less. In fact, an EU-wide study found that there was no relationship between price of alcohol and harm. In other words, people that want alcohol will buy it regardless of price.

I could give you all of my other anti-minimum pricing arguments, such as the fact that this is not a tax – but instead price increases will go straight into the pockets of the retailers so there is no added benefit to taxpayers, or that this will impact the poorest people the most (the government itself has estimated this will cost consumers an extra £1 billion a year due to the increased prices), or that the EU itself has said such a policy is illegal. But, the thing that really worries me is – what next? If minimum pricing of 45p a unit does go through, it seems pretty clear that this will have little positive effect on reducing alcohol harm. So, then what? A £1 minimum price? More? Or other draconian measures – perhaps raising the age limit to drink or limiting where or how you can buy alcohol? This seems to me like the start of a very slippery slope.

Yes, alcohol harm is a real problem in the UK and in many other countries around the world. I don’t have the solution to the problem, I just don’t think minimum pricing is it.


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