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Alcohol – the new opium of the masses?


3rd June 2010

The debate about the costs of alcohol has been resurrected today by the NICE report that recommends that the price of alcohol should be regulated according the concentration of alcohol in the drink. Obvious you might think – why should there be differences in the pricing of the active drug component of different drinks – since the effects of the drug are simply and causally related to the dose taken?  Yet when the Scottish parliament attempted to bring in this as law last year, the Labour party blocked it on the grounds that it would penalise the poorest members of society. A truly bizarre idea that is wrong in both fact and in principle. The poor who are dependent on alcohol find this addiction eats up their income in the same way as the costs of tobacco used to until ten years ago when the original New Labour government put up the price and drove down use. What is never discussed is why alcohol use should not be price sensitive when tobacco use is, probably because it is well known that both are equally susceptible to cost controls.

Today we have a repetition of this intellectual dishonesty but this time from the drinks industry. In response to the NICE report we heard the usual mealy-mouthed protestations that there is no evidence that unit pricing reduces intake.  This statement is technically correct since it’s never been explicitly tried but already alcohol is priced through taxation according to strength. Beers are priced lower than wine which in turn is cheaper than spirits, and people do tend to drink lesser volumes of the more expensive formulation. Moreover the “lack of evidence” claim is an attempted distraction as there is overwhelming proof from many countries over many centuries that increasing the price of alcohol lessens intake.

On top of this we get the claim that alcohol dependent people would not be deterred by price increases so the policy wouldn’t work anyway. Personal anecdotes of dependent drinkers who claim that price wouldn’t deter them are wheeled to support the industry position. What is conveniently overlooked is that most drinkers are not dependent and so are price sensitive and this particularly applies to the young and novice drinkers. The rise of youth drinking is directly related to the reduction of the real price of alcohol that has occurred over the past twenty years. Increasing the cost of alcohol will therefore reduce the rising wave of binge drinking in the young with its accompanying toll of deaths, disability and enduring medical complications. It will also have a minor, but likely significant, effect to reduce drinking in the older age groups which are increasingly experiencing alcohol-related heart and liver disease.

There can be no moral argument for some forms of alcohol, such as 8% cider,  to cost less than a fifth of the same amount of alcohol in wine or spirits when the intoxicating value is the same. The health effects are these ciders are therefore 5x more damaging than those of comparable strength drinks which is why they make a major impact on our health care costs.  Alcohol related damage in the UK runs to tens of billions of pounds a year so each middle class wine drinking tax payer is paying thousands of pounds in taxation to cover this. Most would surely agree that a small hike in the costs of alcohol that significantly reduced overall alcohol consumption and health damage would make economic sense.

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