The good in the demon drink
Nobody can deny that there are economic and social costs associated with alcohol consumption. Most assaults – including domestic ones – involve alcohol, and the divorce risk doubles in marriages where one partner has a drink problem. Over indulgence costs the NHS £2.7bn a year.
But, as I argue in the Guardian today, there is another side to the proposals for minimum pricing. Alcohol brings significant benefits. The economic ones are most obvious. In the UK, taxes on alcohol and the sector provide £15bn to the exchequer (far more than the costs to the NHS). The hospitality industry employs 650,000 people. There are personal and social benefits too, although it is by definition difficult to put a numerical value on them: how much is a glass of champagne at a wedding worth, or a few pints down the pub with your friends?
The new temperance movement - recommending minimum pricing at 50p a unit - bears some of the hallmarks of previous moral panics, in particular a strong revulsion at the sight of women drinking; a deep concern about the "poor" or "working class" over-indulging; and an appeal to the social rights of non-drinkers not to be affected by the drinking classes.
The minimum pricing approach would be deeply regressive. With a floor of 50p a unit, most bottles of wine would by law have to cost at least £4.50. To many Guardian readers this might not sound too bad: but more than half the wine bottles sold in the UK cost less than £4. The poorest group in society – the bottom 10 per cent of the income distribution – spends just £5 a week on alcohol to take home, a figure that would rise substantially under Sir Liam's plans.
Meanwhile, the richest would see little or no change, since their £28 weekly drinks bill is made up of purchases well above the proposed minimum per-unit price. The bottles of Berry Brothers Bordeaux enjoyed by the affluent are safe. It is Tesco's Berberana, currently on sale at £3.32 a bottle, which would be priced beyond the budget of many households. The deals on beer offered by many supermarkets would disappear, seriously hitting low-income households. In this way a war against booze quickly becomes a war against the poor.
From a public health point of view, alcohol is a tricky case, because it is both a social good and a social bad. Consumption of drink is a question of balance. In a free society, this balance ought to be struck by individuals rather than the state.