Since the health lobby made the decision to focus its efforts a couple of years ago on getting minimum pricing on alcohol the whole thing has become a bit of a bore.
Top docs leading the medical temperance movement have repeatedly invoked a single piece of research – the Sheffield University study – to support their claims that a minimum price will reduce alcohol problems and save lives, not to mention money.
The fact is, though, that we don’t really know what the impact will be since all we have are theoretical models, as the person in charge of the Sheffield research at one point admitted.
Still, the Scottish Government, now led by the SNP, has announced it is to press ahead with imposing a minimum price of 45p a unit, a unit being about half a pint of weakish beer.
It may not find it so simple, though. To begin with, Europe might well see the measure as a form of price-fixing and declare it illegal.
Then there’s the matter of public opinion. Consumer focus groups marshalled by Alcohol Research UK, the charity formerly known as Alcohol Education Research Council, suggest minimum pricing will come up against mass popular opposition. A report on the Sky News website was misleadingly headed “Study: 'Cheap Alcohol Ban Won't Stop Bingers'” – but that’s only what people think. It’s not a scientific finding.
So are the people right? Professor, Sir Ian Gilmore, guru of medical temperance and trustee of Alcohol Research UK, expressed his frustration that people don’t understand. They haven’t read the research like he has.
It goes deeper than that, though. Common sense, which isn’t always wrong, suggests that a higher price won’t stop people with real alcohol problems drinking. They’ll find a way to feed their addiction.
Minimum pricing will hit heavy drinkers harder, counter the docs, and they have a point since, by definition, bigger drinkers buy more booze. (And the wealthier ones, presumably, will continue to do so). But there is something slightly disingenuous about this. The goal of minimum pricing is to reduce total alcohol consumption across the population, the theory being that it will, by some mechanism not well understood, reduce alcohol problems.
The likelihood that heavy drinkers will be disproportionately affected by minimum pricing is being used here to swing it with the public, and the public, quite rightly, isn’t having any of it.