Alex Deane: Coalition is wrong on minimum alcohol pricing
The government has announced plans to introduce minimum prices for alcohol. Make no mistake, this is a u-turn. In June last year, Andrew Lansley said of plans to introduce minimum alcohol pricing:
"Regarding NICE's recommendations on minimum pricing for units of alcohol, it is not clear that the research examines specifically the regressive effect on low income families, or proves conclusively that it is the best way to impact price in order to impact demand.
"Supply and price are far from the only factors in driving alcohol misuse. Demand and attitudes are crucial. We need to understand much better the psychology behind why different groups of people drink alcohol in excess. The root causes of social problems lie not just in government policies... but in social norms and peer influence."
He was right then, and wrong now.
Similarly, both parties in the Coalition opposed minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland when SNP attempted to introduce it there. They were right then, and wrong now.
Big Brother Watch opposes minimum pricing for alcohol, because we believe in freedom of choice for the vendor and for the consumer, and we don't believe that the state should try to act as parent to free-willed adults who wish to buy a legal product. People should be free to choose to eat or drink whatever they want, without interference from a nannying government. And it will become ever-more nannying with time if we allow this to happen. We're assured - with all the subtlety of a credit card provider offering 0% rates on introduction, and higher rates thereafter - that this policy will not make a significant difference to prices in the shops. Who genuinely believes that that will remain the case over years to come once this policy is introduced, when the nannyists tell us once again that higher prices on alcohol will have all manner of miraculous effects?
So that deals with the principle. But pragmatically, it's absurd too (this matters particularly because public debate in the United Kingdom is perennially only about the applicability of the precautionary principle, "if it saves one life," "better safe than sorry," rather than about real principle). When the policy was discussed on the Today programme this morning, of course there was no thought given at all to the diminution of freedom it constitutes: the only criticism of it was that as far as "health campaigners" are concerned it "didn't go far enough". A woman whose well-deserved blushes I shall spare by avoiding mentioning her name claimed with admirably spurious specificity and hilariously po-faced seriousness that her "research" showed that this policy would "save 21 lives a year." Garbage. Nice work if you can get some mug to pay for your non-research to deliver results which claims specific benefits will apply to dozens of lives in a society of sixty million, but garbage nevertheless (and on this occasion, the mugs are thee and me, fellow taxpayer).
In any case, the NHS doesn't treat us as a favour; in a society with a level of tax as high as ours, we're entitled to a service from it just like the service we receive from any other kind of provider. People don't "throw themselves on the mercy of the NHS for treatment" - they get it because they've paid for it. That's especially so for drinkers and smokers, who've paid through the nose on taxes on tobacco and alcohol.
There's a reason that this policy hasn't been tried anywhere in the world. Those with the largest problems with alcohol are those least likely to be affected by pricing. Our response to "sin taxes" is, generally, to sigh and pay them - the result isn't to drive down consumption, but to increase the tax take. Similarly, people will simply pay higher prices on booze under this plan. Elasticity characterises consumption of alcohol and tobacco - that's why it's so popular for the Exchequer.
A government elected on a platform of widening freedom should not give way to authoritarian nanny statists. They've u-turned on this subject once already. They should turn again.