Minimum price, minimum impact

7. November 2011 09:16

After much shilly-shallying and a fair bit of faffing about the Scottish Government has introduced a Bill that, if passed – and if the EU doesn't decide it's against competition law – will enforce a minimum alcohol unit price.

There is no doubt the world will be watching. It will form the first real test-case for minimum pricing and if it looks like it works other governments will probably follow suit.

Certainly the Scottish Government and the health lobby believe it will work, and most of the pub industry, too – though for them it's not so much about reducing alcohol harm as getting people back into the pub.

I doubt whether it will have much impact on anything. I doubt, too, whether we'll be able to tell for sure what impact it's having, so many other factors are involved in alcohol harm and pub-going.

Of course, it depends on the unit price that's decided on. At the moment Sheffield University, which produced the piece of research on which the hopes for minimum pricing are almost entrirely based, is updating its findings and a number will come out, probably 45p or 50p.

If it's much more than that, say 70p, it will hit quite hard, but with unpredictable results. We're already seeing a steep increase in cheap bootleg booze being brought illicitly into the country, some of it quite dangerous.

But at 50p what will happen is that people will make a decision on whether to buy based on what, exactly, they get out of drinking. Like anything else they will ask whether it's worth the money.

At a Westminster Forum on alcohol the other day Dr John Holmes, from the Sheffield University research team, argued that minimum pricing will affect heavy drinkers disproportionately. Under questioning he admitted that his heavy drinkers did not include dependant drinkers. The most vulnerable group will carry on drinking themselves to death.

But what about, say, young binge-drinkers? They're a worry, too. But they also have a high emotional investment in drinking. Their social lives are so important to young people it's probably worth the extra cost – even if you have to nick the money.

No doubt some people who don't enjoying drinking so much will conclude it's got too expensive and drop it. More are already abstaining as cuts and unemployment bite.

For others the solution is to drink more. Really heavy drinkers find structure and sociability in drinking, and they aren't going to give that up easily.

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About the author

Phil Mellows

Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist and writer specialising in the UK pub industry and alcohol policy. For more information, and the Politics of Drinking blog, go to www.philmellows.com
You can also follow Phil on Twitter at www.twitter.com/philmellows

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