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Calum Irving: Could Conservatives ever support a minimum price for alcohol?

Calum Irving 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.

Researchers at Sheffield University seem to agree too. Their 2007 study, Independent Review of the Effects of Alcohol Pricing and Promotion, concluded last year that a minimum price per unit of 50p would decrease consumption by 6.9% on average and 7.3% amongst 11–18 year olds where the biggest trouble is being stored up. Amongst the harmful drinkers – those more likely to end up in A&E - a decrease of 10.3% would be achieved. From this group alone that’s 63,200 fewer hospital admissions and 4,500 fewer violent crimes.

Neither does it seem too expensive when you consider that alcohol related admissions to A&E have increased by 69% from 510,200 in 2002/03 to 863,300 in 2007/08 or that alcohol cost the NHS in England £2.7bn in 2006/07 (Statistics on Alcohol, the Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2009). Police, fire and rescue, and the NHS are struggling to cope with binge fuelled crime, accidents and ill health and as a country we want to save money. Would libertarians argue for ever more expenditure to clean up the mess from alcohol?

Some in the industry are changing their mind. Many in the pub trade who are losing out to supermarkets support the introduction of a minimum price and the brewer Molsen Coors has come out in favour. Why?  Because the current trends on alcohol consumption are unsustainable. Another ten years of increases in consumption as set against a public spending squeeze and we have a crisis. Crises, as we know, tend toward governments resorting to draconian measures instead of just ‘nudges’.

Some sections of the press are suggesting Cameron may go for increases in duty based on alcohol content and a prohibition on promotions for bulk buys: a step in the right direction but still not putting a floor beneath those super-cheap bottles of cider and beer that fuel up the harmful drinkers before a night on the town. If David Cameron really wants to tackle the hospital admissions, street crime and domestic abuse with which too many of those nights end up, he’ll give more credence to the idea of a minimum price for alcohol.  Over to you David.


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