Consuming Issues: Does it matter if Tesco sells lager for 29p a pint?
Saturday 03 July 2010
Everyone likes a bargain; it's appealing to pick up a slab of beer for a few pounds. That's why the grocers slash the price of packs of Stella and Carlsberg and why people like me (occasionally, in my case) buy them. What's not in the price of these deals, though, is their true cost.
Cut-price shop booze is killing off pubs, their heritage, and their mostly benign drinking context, and helping to kill off people, too. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people a year die from alcohol abuse and liver deaths have trebled since 1971.
Unlike those individual tragedies, all of us pay for the billions squandered on the NHS and police costs of dealing with alcohol abuse.
Lest that sound too high-minded, let me declare an interest: I like a drink and quail at the thought that having a few jars becomes anti-social, or requires an overdraft extension. But a piece of news caught my eye this week: Trimdon Labour Club, the scene of staged photo calls with Tony Blair and visiting heads of state, announced it was closing, partly because of the death of its treasurer and partly because of a cheaper rival. "Ten pounds gets you four pints of lager in the club and 24 in the supermarket," sighed its secretary, Paul Trippett.
The biggest stores, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Asda, all stock bargain basement booze. Tesco, which publicly backs a crackdown on irresponsible promotions, is currently selling value lager for 29p a pint and 0.7 litre bottle of gin for £7.78.
Grocers say they risk losing custom if they don't run such offers, adding they cannot collude to raise prices because that would be against competition law. Both are true but, knowing the damage done by cheap booze – and selling lager for a ninth of the pub price is ultra-cheap – they could take the financial hit if they chose. They choose not to because cheap booze attracts shoppers who also pick higher-margin products: it makes money.
Now, that would be fine, all part of the free market etc, if it didn't have consequences. Pubs, one of the genuinely historic and characterful aspects of British life – imperfect and sullied maybe, but still more distinctive than glass and breeze block superstores – are being hammered. Although the rate of closures has slowed, two per cent of UK pubs, 1,013, pulled their final pints in the last half of last year.
Pub drinking is controlled: a landlord can be fined for serving someone under-age or drunk, though both still happen. The price of a pint, £2.50, mitigates against over-consumption and sales have been falling for years.
Retail sales on the other hand are rising and stores ran more promotions this Spring than they did the same time last year, despite their rhetoric. There are few brakes on how much people drink at home and police say they have seen more "pre-loading" where revellers tank up before heading out.
Britons have average drinking levels for Europeans, but binge more. Some 21 per cent of women and 31 per cent of men drink hazardously or harmfully. In England alone, the financial cost is £55bn a year – £1,069 per person.
The people who have to deal with drink-related problems think they know the solution. The British Medical Association, Association of Chief Police Officers and Commons Health Committee back minimum pricing.
The Coalition plans to end "below cost" selling. Tesco says – and I believe it – that it seldom sells below cost. At 40p a unit, its value lager would cost 46p a pint, and its gin bottle £10.52. A can of Stella would be 88p. Still cheap, but with a less severe national hangover.
Heroes and villains
Hero: Patrick Holden
Some people think organic food is a rip-off, but it certainly helps the environment. The Soil Association this week announced that its director, Patrick Holden, is stepping down after 15 years. He has done much to highlight how a pesticide-drenched countryside run by agri-business giants might not be the best way forward.
Villain: Thomas Cook Airlines
The charter and scheduled carrier has been named the worst short-haul airline in a poll by Which?, scoring a satisfaction rating of 37 out of 100. Ryanair was second worst, with a score of 43. Swiss was the best, with a overall score of 72. Thomas Cook said its own surveys found high levels of customer satisfaction.
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