With the Prime Minister reportedly signalling his support for putting a minimum unit price on alcohol, debate continues as to whether such proposals are illiberal or necessary when considering the harmful effects of excessive alcohol consumption.
In the 3rd of the CPS' new Debate series, we offer the chance for two leading voices from either side of the argument - Dr Sarah Wollaston MP and Philip Davies MP - to set out their case.
Is it right to introduce a minimum alcohol price to tackle alcohol-related problems? We want to know your thoughts!
Dr Sarah Wollaston MP was elected Member of Parliament for Totnes in May 2010 and lives in South Devon with her husband Adrian and three children. Previously a GP, then police forensic examiner and finally a teacher of junior doctors; Sarah first entered politics through the first open primary and has sought to bring ‘real life’ experience to politics. Sarah was spurred into Politics by her opposition to the threatened closure of Moretonhampstead Community Hospital.
Sarah was voted onto the Health Select Committee in the summer of 2010 and has continued to speak out about the NHS reforms. Sarah continues to speak out about the cost of alcohol related for the end of the month. Other issues that Sarah has spoken about in the House are; the threat Bovine TB, Fuel costs, Water rates, reform of the Commons, equitable life and women’s rights.
Most people will know someone whose life has been ruined through being unable to control their drinking. If they were the only one to suffer then this might be a matter of personal choice and responsibility.
The fact is that problem drinking leaves a trail of destruction in its wake.
Around half of violent crime including homicide and domestic violence is attributable to or aggravated by alcohol and over 700,000 children live with an alcoholic parent. Our casualty departments are overflowing and over a million people are admitted to hospital annually as a result.
If the problem is serious enough - and a conservative estimate puts the cost to our economy and to individuals at around £20billion per year - then Government has a duty to do something more than hand wringing. The costs are hard to quantify as official figures don’t account for disasters like the lifetime care of a child born with foetal alcohol syndrome or the fallout from a fatal crash caused by a drunk driver.
The evidence is clear that the 3 areas that would make the most difference in reducing the carnage are price, availability and marketing.
I wouldn't suggest for a minute that price alone could cure our national drinking problem but without addressing the availability day and night of ultra-cheap alcohol from virtually every street corner, the other measures would not be effective. As a psychoactive, addictive carcinogen we should stop treating alcohol as an ordinary commodity.
I'm backing minimum pricing because it works and would save lives without hitting those on low incomes. At present, pricing and taxation bear little relation to the amount of alcohol in a drink and supermarkets are free to offer alcohol as a loss leader which is subsidised by raising the price on non-alcohol products. Without a minimum price they would continue to do so.
We know that pricing influences demand and that the heaviest drinkers pay on average 40% less per unit than moderate consumers for their alcohol. In particular young binge drinkers target cheaper alcohol promotions. The ban on cheap multibuys has already reduced demand in Scotland and it is a shame that some supermarkets have tried to undermine this by offering cheap deliveries from South of the border.
So if a minimum price were introduced would that harm low income moderate drinkers? It depends on the level at which it is set. Would 45p per unit, as proposed in Scotland really be damaging? In practice a bottle of wine with between 9 and 11 units would work out at costing at least £4.50 and a 2unit pint of lager at least 90p.
Currently cheap supermarket alcohol, routinely available at 17p per unit, means that a teenage girl can be drunk for 68p. At 45p per unit this becomes less attractive and price does influence demand in teenage drinkers.
Low income moderate drinkers are already subsidising the supermarket promotions but they face a double whammy as low income areas also bear the brunt of alcohol related crime and antisocial behaviour.
There is no point at all in an alcohol strategy unless it is evidence based with a good chance of making a difference. There is no such thing as a cheap drink, we are all paying a heavy price.
Philip graduated from the University of Huddersfield with an Upper Second honours degree in Historical and Political Studies and before being elected, Philip worked for Asda for 12 years, working his way up from the bottom to be a Senior Marketing Manager.
Philip was elected to parliament for Shipley in 2005 with a majority of 422 and was re-elected as the MP for Shipley in 2010 with a majority of 9,944. He was also elected onto the Executive Committee of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs in 2006 and has been re-elected back onto it every year since. He has also served on the Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee since 2006
Philip is also a member of the newly established Backbench Business Committee and is on the panel of Chairmen for Westminster Hall Debates and the Committee stage of Bills. Philip became the first MP to publicly call for Britain to withdraw from the European Union and is a member of The Freedom Association's 'Better Off Out' campaign. He is also the Parliamentary Spokesman for the Campaign Against Political Correctness. In 2011, Philip won an award at the Spectator Parliamentary Awards as Readers Representative of the Year.
The very principle of minimum pricing goes against all my beliefs as a libertarian and believer in individual freedom and responsibility. Undoubtedly, there are a small percentage of society who suffer from alcohol-related problems including binge drinking and anti-social behaviour. However, to punish the vast majority of responsible drinkers for the actions of a troublesome few by hiking up alcohol prices across the board is at worst completely unfair and at best, downright perverse.
The people who would be most penalised by minimum pricing are those who are already on tight budgets, such as pensioners, people on fixed incomes or those in low-paid jobs. I simply cannot understand the logic, at a time of economic austerity, how anyone can justify imposing further artificial price rises, deliberately targeted at the very poorest in society.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies produced a report on minimum pricing that found that poorer households, compared with richer households, on average pay less for a unit of off-sale alcohol. For example, households with an income of less than £10,000 a year pay 39.8p per unit, while those on a household income of more than £70,000 pay 49.3p per unit on average. As a result, a minimum price of 40p or 45p per unit would have a larger impact on poorer households and virtually no impact on richer ones.
In addition, the process of setting a minimum price is predicated on the assumption that raising the price of alcohol will make those who misuse alcohol behave differently. However, that is an incredibly simplistic belief.
In fact all of the evidence shows that alcohol pricing has little impact on the habits of heavy drinkers. It's surely obvious, that those who like to drink to excess are the least likely to be deterred from drinking by price rises. We know that thanks to above inflation increases in excise duty for several years, the UK already has some of the highest priced alcohol in Europe, and yet there is no evidence to support the notion that these high prices have deterred alcohol misuse. In fact it's the high tax/high price countries like Sweden and the UK that tend to have a problem with alcohol misuse whereas low tax/low price Spain and Italy do not.
All of which suggests that minimum unit pricing wouldn't work to combat the real issues of binge drinking and alcohol misuse which we all agree is the problem, but is very likely to reduce the intake of responsible drinkers. If wine suddenly jumps from £5 to £10 a bottle then clearly some people will buy less. But this doesn't mean that alcohol misuse by an undeterred minority is going to be lowered.
To date, in the UK overall consumption has fallen by 11% since 2004, but reported levels of alcohol harm continue to rise. Nevertheless, health professionals continue to push for the imposition of prices rises, despite this lack of evidence and despite the fact that a minimum unit price has never been successfully imposed on a national level anywhere in the world.
So if blanket price increases are not the answer, what is? Other methods have had far more obvious success in tackling binge drinkers. We know from experience elsewhere that targeted interventions at problem drinkers have far more impact than taxation increases. So rather than thrashing out with an illiberal, anti-Government, nanny state approach, we should focus our efforts where they will make a difference. Rather than hitting everyone with a price increase, let's target those people that misuse alcohol, let's enforce existing laws about public drunkenness and punish those responsible for anti-social behaviour. Let's support schemes like Drinkaware and Community Alcohol Partnerships which seek to use education to tackle problems such as underage drinking. Surely it is better that we look to combat alcohol abuse at the cultural, psychological and behavioural root of the problem, rather than impose a blanket regressive price hike on the decent, hard working, law abiding majority for whom a pint of beer, a glass of wine, or a dram of whisky, is one of the few pleasures in their hard working week!
Finally, I worry where this will end. Will the Government suggest later down the line that we should introduce minimum pricing of cream cakes, pizzas, chocolate, fish and chips or curry, because they are all bad for us if eaten to excess? This is a slippery slope, and certainly not one that I am prepared to support.
Sarah Wollaston MP
Philip Davies implies that wine would jump from £5 to £10 a bottle to argue the case against a minimum price for alcohol, stating that such a policy would penalise low income moderate drinkers. But having earlier recognised that the price would most likely be set at 40p to 45p per unit, the maximum price for a 10unit bottle of wine would in fact be £4 to £4.50.
Those arguing against minimum price often exaggerate the effect but the truth is that minimum pricing does not, as Philip states, 'hike up alcohol across the board' but just gets rid of the ultra-cheap alcohol that is causing the carnage. Price rises across the board through taxation do not prevent supermarkets offering loss leaders which would not only make this futile but would further damage our pubs.
Alcohol related problems are not limited to a 'small percentage of society' but impact on very large numbers of people struggling to control their drinking as well as those around them.
Poorer households are more likely to have people who drink no alcohol at all and yet they are subsiding the heavy drinkers who target loss leaders and multi buys below the recommended minimum unit price. This is because those cheap deals are paid for by higher prices across the rest of your shopping basket.
There is evidence that pricing works, as shown in several studies and most recently good evidence for minimum pricing from Canada. Of course it cannot work alone; we need action on price, availability, marketing, education, deterrence and treatment in the forthcoming alcohol strategy.
Philip is right that overall consumption has started to fall but not the crime and disease associated with drinking. This is precisely because the problem drinkers are targeting the cheapest ciders, lagers and spirits and raising the price of all drink is not as effective as modestly raising the bar on the lowest price. As long as it is possible to get drunk every night for less than 70p, we shouldn't expect to see the violent crime or the death toll fall anytime soon.
If problem drinking just affected the individual concerned I would share Philip's libertarian view, but it does not and the 700,000 children living with alcoholic parents deserve our help.
As one former drinker put it, if you can't afford 45p per unit it is a sign that you are probably drinking too much.
Philip Davies MP
Sarah tries to have the argument both ways, either the price rises are such that they will barely make a difference to the family budget, or they are large enough that they will deter people from buying alcohol and combat binge drinking. If the former is true, then why impose a nominal price rise which will only serve to exact a further toll on the family budget – given every study has shown that only extreme price rises would deter the heaviest drinkers? Or if the latter is true and alcohol would become much less affordable, then a minimum unit price is opportunistic and is going to hit those on the lowest incomes the most. Either way it simply cannot be argued that a minimum unit price would be both effective whilst at the same time being non-regressive - and I maintain it would be neither!
But regardless of those contradictions and regardless of the fact that there is no evidence that a minimum unit price will work, I return to my point that penalising everyone for the actions of a small minority is a wrong-headed approach. To suggest that because some in our society abuse alcohol we should increase the cost of living for everyone is not a sensible to formulate policy. We should target those that abuse alcohol directly and re-coup the costs created by alcohol-fuelled anti-social behaviour from those that cause the problems, not from responsible drinkers. Enforcement and education are the solutions to binge drinking problems, not regressive and illiberal measures.