Simon Kelner: We've got bigger problems than the price of booze

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I have been thinking quite a lot about drinking recently. Yesterday, as the Home Office laid out its plans to deal with problem drinkers by outlawing cheap booze, I was surveying the shelves of my local Co-op and I noticed that many of the special offers related to alcohol.

And they were a particular kind of inducement: buy more, drink more, save money. I was encouraged to buy eight cans of Guinness, as it was so much more cost-effective than buying a four-pack. I simply thought this made economic sense, and I didn't believe the Co-op and I were in collusion to create a menace to society. Because there's simply no issue here. I am a responsible drinker. Of course I am. I'm middle class and I don't need the State to protect me from myself. It's everyone else who's the problem.

David Cameron is extremely concerned about the cost to society of excess alcohol consumption, so much so that he is prepared to field accusations of nanny-statism by proposing a minimum unit price of 45p for alcoholic drinks in order to modify people's behaviour. Such a move, counter-intuitive for a Conservative-led government, is almost certainly against EU competition law, but Mr Cameron appears to determined to press ahead, even in the face of warnings from his Chancellor that revenues for alcohol duty will be hit.

I've never had a problem with the nanny state – it's where we turn in times of floods and pestilence, and in any case, I want to know that someone's looking out for me – but I can't really see the value of these measures. Andrew Lansley, a former health secretary, has said that a minimum pricing law would disproportionately affect responsible drinkers in low-income households. These are not natural Conservative voters, but even so, the Government must be wary of heaping more financial misery on the beleaguered bottom.

As for the squeezed middle, there is the possibility that the deal in which supermarkets offer a complete dinner, plus a bottle of wine, for a tenner could be banned. How's that going to prevent anti-social behaviour?

The PM seems convinced by medical research that suggests a minimum price would prevent 98,000 hospital admissions a year. I don't know how they reach these figures, and it would be hard to prove that this is a spurious assertion, but surely it would be better to tackle the root causes of alcoholism than by adopting a headline-grabbing policy that doesn't get to the heart of the issue.

In the end, it comes down to whether you believe alcohol abuse is responsible for social problems or if dislocation in society is a cause of alcohol abuse.

Tackling social exclusion, while providing proper support for those who have become afflicted by alcoholism, requires a more thought-out strategy, more hard work, and less gesture politics.