Calum Irving is Head of Campaigns for Our Life, the North West’s wellbeing campaign and the only UK campaign inspired by nudge theory
So David Cameron has started the debate on cheap booze. On his recent visit to Hull he criticised the round the clock availability of very cheap alcohol. He has a point. On the way into work this morning, I noted Tesco’s in Manchester city centre selling Becks at 28p per bottle (20p per unit of alcohol) as part of an offer: spend £30 in store and get 18 bottles of Becks – cheaper than almost any other kind of liquid you could buy in store. Few would argue that prices as cheap as that will increase consumption but the real question is: “Is there a legitimate role for the state here”? The Chief Medical Officer thinks so and suggests a minimum price of 50p per unit – 69p for those bottles of Becks.
Libertarians cry foul. How dare anyone suggest something akin to a price control? Yet, we accept that the price and availability of cigarettes should be regulated and we prohibit certain drugs altogether. Where should the line be drawn? A precautionary principle, which we’re led to believe appeals to David Cameron, suggests that we should think twice before we let binge drinking get out of control. And nudge theory suggests that changing the framework within which we make choices (the choice architecture) can make it easier for us to make healthy choices – something else in which David Cameron believes.
In other words pre-loading – tanking up on cheap booze at home before heading out – is just too easy right now. Pubs are struggling but supermarkets are selling out of cheap alcohol and using it to tempt people in store. They’ve understood for years how to ‘nudge’ us to buy more once we’ve crossed the threshold. At 69p for a bottle of Becks though, you wouldn’t penalise most drinkers but you might nudge people off buying in quantities far larger than they ever intended.