Editorial: Alcohol pricing - find some political bottle

 

There are a number of arguments that can be made against the introduction of a minimum per-unit for alcohol.

One is that the state has no business interfering in a free market. Another is that we should all be free to make our own choices, not led by our wallets down a road of the Government’s choosing. A third is that hiking prices penalises moderate tipplers as well as dangerous bingers, hitting the least well-off disproportionately hard as it does so.

Were the social costs of alcoholism not so high, such contentions might stand. After all, a glass of wine, or even a gin and tonic, is not like a cigarette: moderate consumption is no egregious threat to health, nor is there a passive risk to those around you. But with chronic, alcohol-related health problems soaring, and excessive drinking linked to everything from street violence to deaths on the road, a gentle attempt to tilt the balance back towards a modicum of sobriety must be worth pursuing.

Sad to say, the Prime Minister no longer agrees. A year ago, he was in favour of a minimum price, persuaded by doctors of the dangers of 20p-a-can lager and supermarket aisles piled high with rock-bottom boozy loss-leaders. Now, however – under pressure from his party colleagues, from drinks industry lobbyists, and from his own desire not to add to voters’ ire – David Cameron has changed his mind. The Government is to clamp down on supermarket sales, he says. But minimum pricing has been dropped.

Yet evidence from both Scotland and Canada indicates a direct link between the price of alcohol and the number of deaths caused by drinking it. Failing to tackle the issue can only be bad news for putative dipsomaniacs. It is also bad news for a health service which already spends £3bn treating chronic drink-related complaints every year. And it is bad news for Britain’s peculiarly irresponsible relationship with alcohol. Minimum pricing would not solve all our drink-related problems. But it would, at least, be a start.

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