Leading article: The price of Britain's drinking problem

Share
Related Topics

A boozy summer is in prospect. The football World Cup and a forecast of hot weather make for a potentially heady national brew. So the latest intervention of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) on alcohol abuse is certainly well-timed.

The health watchdog has come up with various recommendations which it argues would curb excessive drinking, from banning alcohol advertising, to more probing from doctors on patients' consumption levels, to a minimum price on a unit of alcohol. It is the last proposal which has provoked the most resistance. The alcohol lobby does not mind a bit of ineffectual official nannying, but anything that might actually reduce sales is anathema. And the lobby can count on the support of many drinkers who do not like the prospect of their cheap tipples being taken away.

Few welcome higher prices. And it would be awkward for the Government to interfere in the private sector with a view to changing the behaviour of the public. But the philosophical case for state action to curb the consumption of alcohol is sound. Excessive drinking creates a significant number of what economists call "externalities", costs imposed on the rest of society by private actions. Nice estimates that alcohol abuse is, every year, responsible for £2bn of public health spending. Binge drinking has also been linked to 1.2 million violent incidents annually. Excessive alcohol consumption puts serious pressure on the health service and the police – and it is society at large, not excessive drinkers, who pick up the bill.

The question is whether minimum pricing is an effective or practical way to deal with Britain's drinking problem. The answer is mixed. Historically, rates of alcohol consumption have been closely related to price. Drinking has gone up in recent decades as alcohol has become more affordable. It is reasonable to assume that if drinks were to be made more expensive, people would consume less. The high volume of sales of ultra-cheap alcohol by supermarkets adds weight to the idea that the present level of consumption is being driven, to some extent, by price.

Yet there is a danger in regarding a minimum price of alcohol as a quick fix. High alcohol consumption in Britain is as much a cultural phenomenon as a result of cheap booze. The effect on binge drinking of a minimum price per unit might be substantially less than Nice and the rest of the medical establishment hope. And we need to remember that a great deal of excessive drinking still takes place in pubs and clubs, where alcohol has always been relatively expensive. A minimum price alone will probably not do the job.

The coalition Government accepts the need for action on alcohol abuse. It proposes to give police and councils greater powers to deal with pubs and clubs that attract trouble. It wants shops that persistently sell alcohol to children to be shut down. It even proposes a ban on the sale of alcohol below cost price by retailers. But it stops short of a minimum price for alcohol. The new Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, suggested yesterday that this would penalise "poorer, moderate drinkers".

But Mr Lansley is behind the curve. Last month even Sir Terry Leahy, the head of Tesco, one of the largest sellers of cheap booze in the country, conceded that the case for a minimum price on alcohol is now overwhelming. It is unfortunate for the Government to be left repeating the tired arguments of the less enlightened corners of the drinks industry.

The Government is right to be sceptical of the notion that minimum prices represent some sort of panacea for Britain's drink problem. But they are, nonetheless, a potentially powerful medicine, and should not be ruled out.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own