Minimum Unit Pricing: Let’s See How it Goes

BrewDog Beers on a shelf.

This week, after much deliberation, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish government can set a 50p minimum price-per-unit for alcohol.

This is a discussion of which we’ve tended to steer clear because following the arguments is a full time job and other people are more invested in it; and because it tends to get a bit frothy as libertarians with complicated connections to think tanks and the booze industry yell at researchers and policy-makers with complicated connections to the historic temperance movement and government, and vice versa.

With that in mind, we can’t say with any confidence whether MUP is a good policy or not, and we’ve heard convincing arguments for and against from both sides.

For example, we do worry that it will make it harder for ‘responsible drinkers’ on low incomes to get tiddly while middle- and upper-class drinkers can continue to get as wasted as they like on whatever they like. (A few years ago we wondered about setting up a Christmas Booze Bank dishing out bottles of whisky or slabs of beer to people who might otherwise have to choose between having fun or having the heating on.) It seems clear that MUP is intended to target very strong white ciders and super-strength lagers — the kinds of thing few people actually choose to drink if they can afford otherwise — but will catch lots of other types of less sinister booze in its net.

Equally, it seems daft to ignore the reality of the problems alcohol causes for some of the most vulnerable in society, especially when it’s wilful ignorance in support of absolutist anti-regulation dogma. Some people drink too much — we’ve all seen the evidence of this, or known family members who demonstrates it — but their lives, and those of their loved ones, might be prolonged and made happier in the long run if they drank at least a little bit less. This is reality, people’s actual lives, not a philosophical parlour game.

We certainly don’t think all alcohol policy campaigners and researchers are cynics and killjoys attempting to introduce prohibition via the thin ends of various wedges. (Even if some of their fellow travellers might be that way inclined.) In general, the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument winds us up — we’d never do anything if point B inevitably leads to point Z. No, we tend to think they are motivated by genuine concern for their brother man, even if that sometimes reads as condescension or meddling; and, in the case of researchers, we’ve no reason to doubt that they are striving for scientific objectivity.

(If you believe otherwise we’d be genuinely interested to know what you reckon motivates them – surely not religion, in 2017? Chronic dourness? Insanity?)

Politicians, government PR people and newspapers on the other hand… Well, they’re prone to over-simplifying, over-dramatising, grand gestures. If there’s a problem, it might be there.

So, again, we don’t know if MUP is a good idea. What we do know is that Scotland won’t be taking this step without due process having been followed. Much research has been undertaken; hours have been spent labouring over every detail and footnote; the final judgement from the Supreme Court seems balanced and cautious (PDF); and there’s going to be a substantial evaluation project to judge its impact.

Good policy or not, this is how it ought to work – small steps, cautiously implemented, challenged in court where appropriate, followed by a serious assessment of whether it has achieved what was intended, and whether they have been any undesirable side-effects.

There is, after all, no way to really test policy without trying it in the real world, and there’s never been any policy, however well-intentioned, that didn’t wing a few bystanders along the way.

Ultimately we have to accept that pubs and the alcohol industry aren’t the only things that matter, even if they’re very important to us, and if the collective judgement is that they have to take a hit for the greater good then, well, that’s part of the give and take of living in a democracy.

Further Reading

11 thoughts on “Minimum Unit Pricing: Let’s See How it Goes”

  1. I’m generally comfortable coming out in favour of something if Christopher Snowdon of the IEA is against it.

    1. Then I’m afraid you’re making a big mistake. I don’t agree with a lot of Snowdon’s positions, but he is absolutely spot on regarding the neo-prohibitionosts.

  2. Rather like increasing the tax on old bangers to get rid of pollution it just means people who can’t afford nice,shiny new low-emission cars will end up paying more.
    Old Russian proverb ” Papa,now the price of vodka is going up does that mean you will drink less.
    ” No,my son,but you will be eating less. ”
    Minimum pricing is ludicrous but it does mean the SNP can virtue-signal to hide its disastrous handling of the Scottish NHS.

  3. If you believe otherwise we’d be genuinely interested to know what you reckon motivates them – surely not religion, in 2017? Chronic dourness? Insanity?

    Same thing that usually motivates people who hold a belief that seems absurd to outsiders – socialisation, differential association, groupthink. A lot of people never get the taste for drinking, and it is a (genuine) Scientific Fact that there’s no safe level for alcohol, with specific reference to increasing the risk of certain relatively uncommon cancers; somebody who doesn’t drink that much may well take the view that it’s better to cut out that particular risk altogether and make up the health benefits of moderate drinking from other sources. And if you’re one of those people, and so are the people you work with day to day, and the people whose work you respect, and the people you have to impress to get promoted… It’s easy to see how a consensus could develop within the public health profession that Alcohol was Bad – at best, that alcohol was fine for special occasions and the odd glass at the weekend – so that substantial reductions in consumption across the board would be a straightforwardly good thing. And I think this is pretty much what’s happened, and what they’re aiming for. As a card-carrying Corbynite I hold no brief for the IEA, goodness knows – and I’ll probably look very silly when they finally reveal who funds them – but I think on this one they’re more right than wrong.

    1. As the great science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein said: “The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.”

    2. “there’s no safe level for alcohol, with specific reference to increasing the risk of certain relatively uncommon cancers” – indeed. Alcohol raises a really really really tiny risk to a really really tiny risk.

      The fact is that below 21 units a week, drinking is safer than not drinking.

  4. We have minimum pricing in Ontario and have had for years. Unfortunately, as I learned years ago helping a pal who helped run a food bank, below the high test beers and cheap sherry sits another source of alcohol. Desperate alcoholics spray aerosol Lysol into the cap cup that comes with each can. It kills at a more rapid pace than cheap booze due to the other ingredients but is a ready source of ethyl alcohol. So in one way, a certain saddest element of the target group is hurt by regulation of the price. I think the more effective sort of regulation is the “open container” prohibitions that keep drinking to bars, public and private homes. No booze is sold before 11 am, too. Folk are certainly implicitly told that drinking is not for any time and in any space. Not sure that would work in less orderly cultures. Going to New York State seems like the Wild West to we dull staid Ontarians.

    1. well put. Alcohol in the national retail outlets has defied inflation on pricing in the last 25 years. Supermarkets have destroyed high street retail chains like Threshers and Oddbins. When I was relatively skint and living in London in the early 90s, a can of Red Stripe would cost 99p on the high street or (nightmare) £1.20 in the off-license on Paddington Station. The supermarket outlets on Paddington don’t sell single cans and the price is lower – hard to believe, but inflation has gone in reverse. (I don’t drink Red Stripe anymore but it is my pricing bellwether). Brands like Stella, which was once “reassuringly expensive”, are part of the backbone of supermarket trade as are the lowest common denominator brands. The intent of the MUP, I feel, is not so much to protect people who currently have a dependency on alcohol but to prevent future dependencies. A bottle of wine at 12% alcohol will be £4.50 minimum under MUP – can you still buy wine for less than £3.99 at the moment? Yes, it will have a disproportionate effect on lower income drinkers but it will prevent underage drinkers quaffing like adults. On balance I’m delighted with the judgement

  5. As someone who, unlike your other commentators, both lives in Scotland and is currently on very limited funds, you’ll probably not be surprised to learn that I think it is terrible news. The only crumb of comfort is that it appears that the Scottish Government will stick to the 50p figure rather than increasing it for inflation. Take money from the poor and give it directly to supermarkets, what an absolutely fantastic idea. The stated aim is to increase the price of high strength low price (and low quality drinks and whilst the headline figures may be that 3l of Frosty Jack’s will be over £11 instead of £3 and “rotgut” spirits will be around £14 a bottle instead of under a tenner, what I’m seeing is that the four cans of cider I bought in Sainsbury’s will be £4.40 instead of £2 and my four pack of Perlenbacher lager from Lidl will be £3.96 instead of £2.65. And this weekend’s special offer wine (which is a perfectly drinkable table wine) from Lidl instead of being £2.99 or even its normal £3.89 will be £4.88.

    Now for people who are used to paying £6 a pint upwards in a some craft beer bar, or even just £2 a small can in supermarkets, this will affect them not a jot. They are probably sneering at my drink choices right now and wondering if all those poor people might be being done a favour, as if you are paying more, why not drink something of better quality? Or just drink a bit less, because surely they must all be “problem drinkers” anyhow? Well, how wrong they would be. Because the ordinary people, the people who can’t afford to go to the pubs regularly (even when a pint of lager in my local starts at £2.90), but who might like a couple of beers of an evening, a glass or two of wine at tea, a few drams – they are the ones who are going to be affected, much more than the problem drinkers (who are far from being universally poor) or the youth drinkers (Buckfast is expensive enough that it will be affected little, if at all.) The people who are on low incomes, or retired, or working part-time or not at all. The people who aren’t causing a problem, but to whom a fiver really does matter.

    Want some more examples? Christmas is coming, so bargains are to be had. These are some from Morrisons. Mainstream brands.

    20x Magners: £10 now, £20 at 50p a unit.
    20x Fosters: £13/ £18
    70cl Grant’s whisky £11/£14 (actually 63p less than Morrison’s Savers whisky)

    Even the Savers bitter at 2% abv will increase from £1 to £1.76 – hardly the stuff of panic in the streets.

    (And no more unlikely bargains either – like the 6 pack of bottles of Founder’s All Day IPA I picked up in Home Bargains yesterday. That would be at least £5.06 rather than the £4.49 I paid. Which would still be reasonable value, I suppose.)

    20x Magners

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