On the minimum price of alcohol


Politicians are so good at attacking the symptoms of a problem rather than the cause – and, indeed, attacking them in completely the wrong way. As with the Scottish government's plan to combat the 'binge' culture by imposing a minimum price of 45p on each unit of alcohol that is retailed.

In the first place, what is the problem? You might imagine that the widely reported drunkenness on UK streets happens because people in the UK simply drink much more than other countries. And sure, we drink twice as much as we did in 1960. But the 1960s (remember Mods and Rockers?) had its fair share of street violence. And today, in fact, we drink less than the European average – 8.4 litres of pure alcohol per head per year, a bit less than placid Belgium and Luxembourg (8.5), and much less than orderly Germany (10.0) or Austria (10.4). Second, we're actually drinking less than we did. Consumption showed a 6% fall last year, the fourth annual drop in five years.

Is the problem that alcohol is too cheap? Again, alcohol is very much cheaper in most other European countries, because tax makes up so much (and often most) of the cost of the alcohol sold in the UK. Our tax on beer, for example, is ten times higher that in Germany and seven times that in France.

No, if there is a problem with alcohol-fuelled loutishness, its roots lie elsewhere. It could be that with the smoking ban, we have killed off so many pubs. In pubs, at least, people (especially young people) at least drink under the supervision of the licensee and other members of the public – when they load up at the supermarket, they don't. And on the streets, there is unlikely to be a beat police officer in range who might tell them to calm it down a bit. They are six times more likely (yes, really) to be back in the station doing paperwork.

The other big cause is probably what David Cameron bangs on about: the decline of personal and family responsibility, whereby young people are not taught, and struggle to learn, the limits of acceptable social behaviour. Perhaps we are so used to the state running our lives that we leave such problems to the schools and the authorities. So maybe we shouldn't be surprised at the resulting mess.

Even if cheap alcohol were the problem, how should you deal with it? Putting up the tax would at least be defensible economics. Minimum pricing isn't. Price controls just mess up the market system and produce all sorts of perverse results which may be hard to predict. And once the politicians have started to regulate one price on the supermarket shelves, where do you think their public-spirited intervention will stop?