Tag Archives: minimum pricing

How much is too much?

A man slumped on the floor, head in hands with glazed eyes and vacant expression. Minutes later he stumbles towards the toilet, hand firmly placed over mouth whilst people swiftly move out of his way. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief when he makes it to the toilet and the door shuts behind him.

You might think this was the result of a few too many beers at a down-at-heel bar late on a Friday night. In fact, this was the scene at a consumer wine tasting in Manchester early on a Saturday evening just a few weeks ago. Of course, this man was not representative of the attendees at the tasting as a whole, but the vast majority of those present were certainly tipsy and many were on their way to drunkenness. For the first couple of hours at the event everyone had been interested in tasting and learning about the wines on show, but the final hour or so was more about getting their money’s worth and drinking as much as possible.

Contrast this scene with that of another consumer tasting I worked at not that long ago, this time in Stockholm. Here the attendees were truly there to learn about wine, many were spitting as they went around – and once they had tried what they wanted, they were happy to leave, feeling that they had had a good evening. There wasn’t a drunk person in sight.

So what is it about people in the UK that causes us to act like children in a sweet shop when it comes to alcohol? Why don’t we know how much is too much – and why do we feel the need to drink as much as we can just to perceive that we’ve got our money’s worth?

Sadly there isn’t an easy answer to any of these questions. What is clear though is that it is no good for us in the wine trade to act as though these issues don’t really affect us – that they’re more to do with the perceived ‘lesser’ alcoholic drinks of spirits, cider and beer than wine. It may be easy to argue that wine is a more exalted alcoholic drink due to history, culture, its ability to match with food or even perceived health benefits – but at the end of the day wine is alcohol and, frankly, that is one of the (many) reasons we drink it.

The issues of alcohol and its negative impact on health and society are regularly debated in the media and by the government. Minimum pricing was just the latest in a line of ideas to improve the problem but that now seems to have been shelved (something, personally, I am pleased about – see my previous blog arguing against minimum pricing here). However, in my opinion, ideas to limit the sale of alcohol via pricing or tax or by limiting advertising are not really addressing the problem – which seems to be more of a cultural mindset than a price-sensitive issue.

It will only be when we really understand why we as a population think that the only way to have a good night out is to get drunk or why when people go to a wine tasting that they think that they have to drink as much as possible to get their money’s worth that we can begin to solve the wider problem.

In the meantime my fellow monkeys and I will continue to drink wine not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. For our mindset is that there is nothing more enjoyable than having a glass or two of good wine with good friends. Lets spread the word.


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.