He drinks a whisky drink, He drinks a vodka drink, He drinks a lager drink, He pays a fortune for the privilege...
January 13, 2010 7:12 AM   Subscribe

The House of Commons Health Committee recommends (report) that England should introduce a minimum price for alcohol. Unsurprisingly, the British Medical Association agrees, saying that the country needs "minimum pricing, higher taxation, reduced availability, improved regulation and better treatment for patients who have alcohol addiction problems" while the alcohol industry does not." So, what is the worth of a pint?

Some facts and figures from the Economist.
posted by patricio (27 comments total)
40p a unit doesn't strike me as a fortune.
posted by ninebelow at 7:26 AM on January 13, 2010

Why not just replace alcohol with benzodiazepine solution of equivalent potency? They're both tranquilizers. It would feel pretty similar without the nasty side effect of turning the liver (and eventually the brain) to swiss cheese. It wouldn't taste the same as alcohol (in fact it would barely have a taste at all) but flavoring could be added to give it a 'kick.'
posted by mullingitover at 7:33 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

The sooner the better IMHO...
Those bottles of 40% 'spirits' that scummy Tescos sell... meh! They have nooo morals.
I was addicted to Stupor Strength Cider for about two years a decade ago and I am still suffering medical consequences. It used to cost me £2.00 for 2 litres of 8.5 % chemsoup.
I think Richard Reeves in the Guardian touches on something very interesting however - that the root of all the hysteria about 'Binge Britain' is essentially classist in nature; it upsets the powers that be that the working class are having a good time heheh.
posted by Monkeymoo at 7:37 AM on January 13, 2010

How about a rat park inspired solution to drug abuse, rather than further punishment?
posted by crayz at 7:37 AM on January 13, 2010

Previously about alcoholism and the UK health system. Tragic, and certainly worth a read.
posted by Maximian at 7:50 AM on January 13, 2010

It is rather odd that the only thing that is cheap in England is booze.
posted by srboisvert at 8:05 AM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't particularly like taxes/tariffs aimed directly at consumption, as the result normally falls heaviest on the poor. But I was surprised to read this is as much about off-license drinking as on-license, if not more. The problem with regulating people's private behavior is that it's nearly impossible with seriously unlibertarian measures, and costs alone aren't likely to have much of an impact. There's probably nothing so sure that in the worst alcohol-affected households raising the cost of alcohol will just raise the proportion of income spent on it, with isn't really a great outcome.

I wanted to suggest that the problem with on-license drinking is that many newer establishments are so large they can cut price alcohol, yet at the same time be incapable of fulfilling their duty of care towards customers. Changes to the law to promote smaller capacities would possibly help limit overconsumption, as license holders would need to decide whether low-price alcohol was still a good business plan or not. It would still raise the cost of alcohol though, but hopefully in a way that responded better to the market - people would willingly pay a little more for a better place to drink, but the alternative might still be available.

It is rather odd that the only thing that is cheap in England is booze.

Poor people are pretty cheap too! You can waste a few thousand and nobody will really care.
posted by Sova at 8:28 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I believe the truth is that the price really doesn't have much to do with the UK's increasing use of alcohol in short intense binges. As has been seen with the crackdown in underage drinking actually resulting in strongly increased numbers of children with alcohol-related admissions to hospital (i.e. another New Labour Prude-Policy(tm) totally failing), it seems to me that there are external factors changing the behaviours of the groups most likely to increase alcohol consumption.

You can see from the chart in The Economist that beer consumption (the primary culprit blamed in binge drinking, not middle class wine drinking, oh no...) has actually stayed overall flat for most of the last forty years. What has changed in that time is a variety of things:

- no more drink driving. You can't go to the village pub, have a couple and drive home. So now you have to organise a night out, with transport pre-arrangements. Doesn't that make it much more likely you'll be *determined* to have a "big" night out?

- the change in licensing during the 80's and 90's that allowed the "circuit pub" to develop. This is the evolution between a brewery-owned small village or "local" pub (where traditionally the landlord knew his customers and could exercise control on drunkenness) to a converted shop with many thousands of square feet of floorspace turned into an anonymous drinking hall. These are even optimised to reduce the number of chairs and allow a higher fire limit. Pack 'em in, turn up the heating and turn up the ambient noise with loud music, reducing conversation and leaving only one activity - drinking. Sounds like one of those psychology experiments they try with rats to see how much provocation you need to force them to attack each other.

- increased disposable income. The poor are a huge amount richer than they were even 30 years ago. As any Sky TV dish installer will tell you - they mostly work on council and housing association estates. The share of income of food in an average worker's pay packet is a tiny fraction of their overall bill. (Assume an average income of £21,000 and an average food bill of £100 per week and an average beer price (e.g. Guinness) £3 per pint and basic Sky at £4 per week. You see it's not hard to get very drunk three nights a week and still afford your Sky TV.

So: Solutions.
Actually I think these are quite simple, but not related to alcohol.
- Transport. If we can't drink and drive, why can't I get a taxi home at night? I have to pre-book, plan and turn up on-time, making a night out a complex and rigid event. Simply, the Taxi licensing regime is set up to enforce a scarcity of provision for drivers, guaranteeing a relatively high income for the utterly unskilled job. (This is for "minicab" drivers outside London, inside the M25 they earn even more - beating a lot of skilled jobs for sustained income). I'm sure total deregulation would be a disaster, but why not open up other options (including "night only" taxi licenses - forcing the drivers to be available at peak use hours or maybe central town booking services - which work very well in Finland and Ireland). Part of the reason cafe-culture doesn't work here, is you can turn up and leave when you feel like it in France - because you drink and drive (that's changing too). There's no social pressure to have a "good time" in the remaining 37 minutes before the taxi arrives.

- Kill the circuit pubs. This will be fought tooth-and-nail by the pub industry but needs to be done. No more converted banks and shops. Maximum square footage for pub licensing. Drastically more expensive licences with included payment-per-incident to the police for alcohol-related incidents. Push the external costs back onto the sites that cause the most damage. (see the Freakonomics blog for "externalities" for some wonderful examples)

- Restore the 21st century version of the "local". How to do this? How about: Make members-only clubs much more attractive (in licensing terms) and use the "we know you" factor to create social solutions pushing self regulation. Clubs that self-ban drunks (e.g. raise your voices in an anti-social football chant? 1 week ban...) get lowered costs for their licences. It *will* be an intrusion on your privacy to have to join a members-only club just to get a quiet drink, so there is a significant downside. But how else do you restore the social pressure to behave to a socioeconomic group that hasn't listened to external parties for more than three generations now?

Thanks for reading.
posted by Hugh Routley at 8:50 AM on January 13, 2010 [13 favorites]

I have no problem raising prices as long as the excess $$ goes towards a good, related cause, like alcohol abuse centers, in this case. Maybe I missed it, but I don't see anything here that implies such a thing is the case here.
posted by coolguymichael at 8:58 AM on January 13, 2010

Oh the Chumbawamba reference made my morning. It shouldn't have but it did.
posted by deacon_blues at 9:07 AM on January 13, 2010

In other news, the depressing truth.
posted by deacon_blues at 9:11 AM on January 13, 2010

Hugh Routley, you ask why you can't get a taxi. I expect that the problem is that the taxi drivers are tired of having drunks puke in the cab. I suppose that most drunks are also lousy tippers.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 9:13 AM on January 13, 2010

Midnight Skulker: I suppose that most drunks are also lousy tippers

In my experience (admittedly not as a cab driver, but as a passenger, both paying and not, and as a social drunk) that is not the case. Besides, round here at least, taxi rates go up at night, and there is a fairly large standard "soilage charge". It is a good point about having to deal with drunks and their sick, however.
posted by Dysk at 9:41 AM on January 13, 2010

Minimum prices are stupid. Why should the government force retailers to engage in price-fixing? If they want to raise the price, they should just increase the tax. Of course, that would affect everyone, not just the cheapest alcohol favored by the poorest.
posted by grouse at 10:15 AM on January 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

How about a rat park inspired solution to drug abuse, rather than further punishment?

crayz, thanks so much for that reference!
posted by IAmBroom at 10:24 AM on January 13, 2010

Yeah but, no but, yeah but, no but, she's a slag anyway
posted by msbutah at 10:37 AM on January 13, 2010

Hooray, fuck the poor. Trying to price people out of booze won't help much, up to a certain point they'll just buy the booze and their food and other entertainment budget will lose out, or beyond a certain point the real problem cases will turn to drugs. See Norway for an example of how high alcohol prices have impacted on the use of heroin.

As for the "21st century equivalent of the local", they still exist. Mostly found selling real ale, often but not always in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide.
posted by knapah at 10:43 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Minimum prices are stupid. Why should the government force retailers to engage in price-fixing? If they want to raise the price, they should just increase the tax. Of course, that would affect everyone, not just the cheapest alcohol favored by the poorest.

It will still hit the poorest more, as a proportion of their income: consumption taxes always do. The use of taxes on consumables rather than income or assets has been around in the UK since the Napoleonic wars (if not before), and it's always been to have the poor pay instead of the rich. I know this would not be to raise tax, but to change habits, but I don't think it would work that way. I don't know exactly how changes in cigarette tax changed smoking habits, but I think the result was not as strong as things like education.
posted by Sova at 10:58 AM on January 13, 2010

Yes, I know. But if there is money to be made as a part of this, I would rather it go to the government than the retailer.
posted by grouse at 11:01 AM on January 13, 2010

Yes, I know. But if there is money to be made as a part of this, I would rather it go to the government than the retailer.

I suppose that's reasonable, yes. Sorry for getting the wrong end of your point.
posted by Sova at 11:24 AM on January 13, 2010

That's fine, I didn't articulate what the point was so well.
posted by grouse at 11:26 AM on January 13, 2010

Minimum prices are pretty ridiculous. If the goal is to curb consumption through pricing, just add a tax and funnel the proceeds directly into hard reduction and alcohol treatment programs (to remove the temptation for government to try to maximize the income from consumption).
posted by mullingitover at 11:59 AM on January 13, 2010

We have the same problem with cheap alky here in much of the US. Every liquor store, of which there are hundreds, if not thousands in major cities almost always feature a half pint of vodka for a couple-three bucks or so. Curiously, this price is sometimes offered here in California without the usual accompanying sales tax. A liquor store might offer 2 half pints of vodka for $5 "out the door" meaning an even five dollars with no additional 9% sales tax (apparently) added on. Makes for a quick transaction and also allows the potential buyer to know exactly how much small change will get a bottle.

Why not just replace alcohol with benzodiazepine solution of equivalent potency?

I find the benzo high to be eerie and uninspiring, not very social. Alcohol is quite the opposite. A better substitute might be GHB. But then the dose/response curve is tricky. Not to mention the hysteria concerning "date rape" around GHB.

I predict very little will change. Readily available, cheap alcohol is as ingrained (heh) a custom as you will find in much of the world. Remember Gorbachev's crusades against vodka in the Soviet Union? He had the luxury of completely centralized control to boot.
posted by telstar at 2:49 PM on January 13, 2010

Another factor is that as you start to raise prices in any way on something like alcohol, the poor (or cheap) end up willing to drink substitutes, or do terrible things to alcohol to make it last longer or the high quicker.
posted by jscott at 3:33 PM on January 13, 2010

I don't know exactly how changes in cigarette tax changed smoking habit

Sova, I can't speak for the UK (where everybody seems to smoke!), but having worked a little in this area in Australia, let me say: price increases have an immediate and noticeable effect on consumption patterns for cigarettes. The evidence is very stark and crystal clear (amazing when you think about how addictive ciggies are, but there you go): increasing prices reduces consumption.

I can't speak for the UK but in Australia - with similar problems - a lot of this is the result of byzantine liquor laws and powerful alcohol lobbyists. In an ideal world, alcohol tax would be a simple sliding scale based on alcohol percentage. In Australia, however, that's not the case: beer attracts a much higher tax than wine, and spirits attract an even higher tax than beer.

"But Smoke!" you say, "that's fine - those alcoholic beverages have an increasing level of alcohol in line with their taxes!"

A ha, that would be true, but wine is not wine per se. It can be "wine product", spirits can be "mixed drinks", and on and on it goes, ultimately resulting in the fact that you can get 4 litres of the most nasty-arse port imaginable for $7. With an alcohol content of 20% or so, you get a whopping 800mls alcohol for $7.

With the cheapest beer imaginable - at 5% alcohol - you would need to buy 16 litres to get that much alcohol, - about 1 3/4 cases of beer, minimum price of which would be about $65.

So port = 800mls alcohol for $7
Beer = 800mls alcohol for $65 (ten times that amount!)
Spirits = 800mls alcohol for $80-$90

That is the problem with alcohol taxes right there.
posted by smoke at 3:48 PM on January 13, 2010

Midnight Skulker - isn't that my point? If there were more immediate and casual ways of getting to and from my home to the places where I socialise - then there wouldn't be the pressure to have a *big* night out whenever we go out...

If I have to plan a night out, and hence the barrier-to-entry making it a special event, then perhaps there wouldn't be as many drunks getting into the cars at "throwing out" time.
posted by Hugh Routley at 2:17 AM on January 14, 2010

Wouldn't this just make many poor alcoholics even poorer?
posted by Soupisgoodfood at 6:13 PM on January 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

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