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Minimum Unit Pricing "on the rocks"...?

We learn this morning that the government shows “weak leadership” on the issue of a minimum price for alcohol in England and Wales because ministers can’t agree on the policy.  Actually, this is just symptomatic of a government without a working majority rather than indecisiveness; a handful of dissenting voices would be irrelevant with a decent majority in the commons and the policy would probably go through.  The trouble is, that whilst it may be a sensible idea, it’s hardly a vote-winner and is unlikely to appear as a manifesto promise ahead of the next election.
The disagreements over Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) could still be resolved though since the crux of the problem is not whether it is “fair” but whether or not it will work as a means of tacking alcohol-related health issues.  This is, of course, unknown but the only way we are going to find out is by trying it.  Conservative MP and former GP Sarah Wollaston has now joined us with a call for introducing MUP  for a trial period of 3 years to see whether or not it makes any difference and, if it doesn’t, it can be scrapped.  We suggested this very idea on BBC Radio Suffolk earlier this year.
So far so good you may think, but there is still a problem, and it’s to do with how we measure success (or failure) of the scheme.  In his recent article in Off Licence News Phil Mellows highlights precisely this problem.  He points out that “numbers are essential to the public health approach to alcohol”.  Here is his article in full which is well worth a read.  It calls into question many of the claims made by Alcohol Concern and other similar organisations simply because the figures they use are wrong and simply trotted out as a means of supporting government policy.  It’s not even a matter of opinion, he argues, simply a matter of fact.  We will let you draw your own conclusions.
The main objection to MUP would seem to be that it would penalise moderate drinkers on modest incomes who choose to buy (or can only afford) products at the very cheap end of the market.  This is a valid observation and worth exploring further.  It has been argued that any penalisation of moderate drinkers by price rises on very cheap products would be unfair on consumers, but with the current proposals on MUP, any unfairness is effectively the price that we as a society are being asked to pay for trying to address the problem of alcohol related harm; we simply need to decide whether or not it’s a price worth paying.  It could be seen as unfair to expect a large number of people to pay a bit extra each for a scheme designed to improve the lives of a minority of others, or you could argue that such an arrangement is merely symptomatic of the caring and civilised society that we should be…
In Ipswich there is currently a campaign running called “Reducing the Strength”.  It seeks the voluntary removal of all beers, lagers and ciders from stores in the town with an alcohol volume of 6.5% or over which are sold for a very low price.  In other words, it seeks to target only those products of choice of the small section of consumers who drink specifically to get drunk.  These are drinks designed with only one purpose in mind, to deliver as much alcohol as possible as cheaply as possible.  They are not designed for flavour, or to accompany food, or to refresh, they are simply a means of delivering booze to consumers for whom booze is the only thing that matters.  This is the section of consumers for whom the health risks are greatest, they are frequent and high consumers of alcohol. Might it therefore be worth considering the introduction of MUP on just these products rather than across the board since they seem to be the main culprits?  This would surely show us whether MUP works or not.
The trouble is, the government likes us to drink because of the tax revenue that alcohol brings in, it just can’t say so.  The Chancellor will probably raise Excise Duty again next week, not because he thinks we will drink less as a result, but simply because he needs the money.  He will do it sneakily using words such as “no additional increase” in the hope that this will be widely misreported as “no increase”, saving face whilst he allows the Excise Duty Escalator introduced by his predecessor to automatically raise it by 2% above inflation.
If we’re not going for MUP nationally then local strategies like Ipswich’s own “Reducing the Strength” would seem to be the best bet to tackle the problems caused by low priced booze and we will need to look north of the border to see whether MUP makes any difference.  After all, if it works in Scotland, it ought to work anywhere.


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