I can’t claim to have any revolutionary suggestions for combatting our supposed descent into alcoholic oblivion, but I’m not sure that minimum unit pricing is the answer. Using price controls to affect people’s behaviour is going to be unpredictable when the perception of the product differs so radically from person to person, social group to social group.
Least affected by a minimum unit price would be the new subject of alcohol scare stories… those crazy middle-aged middle-class middle Englanders, who think nothing of downing a couple of bottles of red (along with the inevitable G&T and brandy) every evening. Somehow, I just can’t see them being particularly worried that their local Asda no longer has a single bottle of wine under a fiver.
If the measures are only aimed at reducing consumption among young (and underage) drinkers, I’d argue that even they are partially immune to price fixing. Didn’t we all save up for a Friday night out back in our teens? If alcohol prices had all increased by 5% or 10%, would we have reduced our consumption? I seriously doubt it. At that stage in your life, drinking is intertwined with too many other things… getting off with girls, peer pressure, freedom from parents, freedom from school or work. And above all, there’s the lack of competing financial constraints, especially boring adult responsibilities.
And what about those of us who fall outside of those groups? Most of my drinking involves a fair amount of real ale geekery, where prices are already far above the 40p unit rate. Even the cheapish wine I drink will most likely be above the threshold. This is where I almost, sort of, just might be tempted to see what would happen, because the minimum unit price would form a threshold not only in cost, but also in quality. The message would be “If you’re expecting to get wine or beer THAT cheaply, maybe you should think about what you’re drinking.” But who are we to legislate for people’s tastes? And what of the well-behaved people on lower incomes, who just wouldn’t be able to make that migration in quality?
Like I said before, I don’t have any constructive suggestions. I can’t see attempts to control demand being universally successful; the only non-damaging solution would be to address the overall lifestyles of the problem groups, and that’s not going to happen.
It also concerns me that minimum unit prices, while aimed at cheap, mass-produced products and supermarket loss-leading offers, could damage the whole industry, especially the fragile world of small breweries and wine producers. A determination to continue buying big-name alcohol brands, despite the price rises, could result in a move away from more specialist product areas. I suspect we won’t be seeing any reductions in tax and duty to minimise this damage.