Leading article: The price of Britain's drinking problem

Thursday 03 June 2010 00:00 BST

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.

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