We should stop panicking about Boozy Britain
Here’s what everybody knows about Boozy Britain. As a nation we are drinking twice as much as we did sixty years ago. The double whammy of cheaper booze and 24 hour drinking has led to an epidemic of alcohol abuse which threatens to overwhelm the NHS. Alcohol-related hospital admissions have doubled in less than a decade and now stand at over one million per annum. Millions of us put our health in jeopardy by drinking more than the daily alcohol limits. The recently announced ban on selling alcohol below-cost is an empty gesture because very few retailers use alcohol as a loss-leader. As Alcohol Concern Wales tweeted contemptuously, the ban is ‘not to be confused with a min[imum] price per unit, which might actually work.’ The real solution for Boozy Britain is for the state to price each unit of alcohol at 50p.
That is the popular narrative. Now consider the facts. Yes, we are drinking more than we did in the immediate post-war years. An economic depression sandwiched by two world wars reduced alcohol consumption to the lowest in our history, but austerity Britain can hardly be considered a typical reference point. Using more relevant benchmarks, we are drinking less than we did in 1914 and very much less than we did in previous centuries. We are drinking only marginally more than we did thirty years ago and—here is a seldom spoken truth—we are drinking less than we did in 2002.
Yes, there are millions of us who exceed our ‘daily limits’ (they’re actually weekly guidelines). How could we not? These guidelines were not based on any real evidence when they were set in 1987 and methodological changes have since dragged several million more of us over the line of ‘hazardous drinking’. Limits that do not allow for tipsiness, let alone drunkenness, deserve to be ignored and yet the percentage of men and women drinking above the ‘limits’ has still been falling for a decade, with the largest decline seen amongst young men.
By comparison with our European neighbours, we are firmly mid-table in the alcohol consumption stakes, behind France, Germany and Spain and far behind the Czech Republic and Luxembourg. In terms of alcohol taxation, however, we are Champions League contenders. The UK has the second highest excise duty on wine, the third highest excise duty on beer and the fourth highest excise duty on spirits. ‘Rip-off Britain’, perhaps, but hardly ‘Boozy Britain’.
It can be argued that per capita alcohol consumption is a poor marker for drunkenness, alcoholism and alcohol-related harm, but a doubling in alcohol-related admissions at a time of falling alcohol consumption should raise sceptical eyebrows. Sure enough, the number of medical conditions that are considered ‘alcohol-related’ has tripled during this period and the system of estimating them has undergone what the NHS calls a ‘substantial change’. Hundreds of thousands of hospital visits, predominantly involving the elderly, are now classified ‘alcohol-related’. Our ageing population guarantees further rises in ‘alcohol-related admissions’ in the future.
If there has been a rise in alcohol-related harm in the last decade, it has happened against a backdrop of declining alcohol consumption and higher prices. This alone should make us question the merits of broad-brush policies which punish the many for the sins of the few. Despite claims to the contrary, the cost of alcohol has increased by 20% in real terms since 1980. Only Finland and Ireland tax their drink more punitively and neither are models of sobriety. Charging a minimum of £6 for a bottle of wine might make moderate drinkers reduce their consumption somewhat, but the evidence shows that heavy drinkers are least responsive to price rises.
Minimum pricing is a sin tax by any other name designed to serve the interests of pubs, supermarkets and neo-prohibitionists. There will be no apology from the temperance lobby when minimum pricing fails to curb problem drinking. On the contrary, I’ll bet you a pig to a pork scratching that they will complain that 50p is mere pocket money and demand above-inflation rises ad infinitum. For this insatiable lobby group, increasing the price of a litre of white cider is incidental to the main goal of establishing the principle that the state should set the price of ‘undesirable’ products. Opening this Pandora’s Box would represent an exceptional intrusion into the buyer-seller relationship. Only a nation gripped by panic would even contemplate it—hence the popular, but wildly misleading, narrative of Boozy Britain.
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Chris Snowdon is author of The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition Since 1800, which is published by Little Dice.Tagged in: alcohol, binge drinking, Boozy Britain, health, tax
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