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

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The campaigning is over. So now we wait...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
In this handout provided by NASA from the the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, weather system Arthur travels up the east coast of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida in space. The robotic arm of the Space Station Remote Manipulator System or Canadarm2 is seen at upper right. According to reports, Arthur has begun moving steadily northward at around 5 kt. and the tropical storm is expected to strike the North Carolina Outer Banks  

Thanks to government investment, commercial space travel is becoming a reality

Richard Branson
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week