Does minimum pricing work?

The PM will indicate support for the measure to reduce problem drinking. But does it make sense?

Anyone who's ever come home from a night out with an empty wallet will groan at the thought, but David Cameron is to indicate support for putting a minimum price on alcohol today. During a visit to a hospital in the north-east, he will say that excess consumption of alcohol is costing the NHS £2.7bn a year. This comes ahead of a government strategy on alcohol, due to be published soon after nearly a year of consultation with health professionals and the drinks industry.

If minimum prices are endorsed, it will mark a change in the government's policy. Cameron is instinctively opposed to further regulation, while the public health minister, Ann Milton, has queried whether it would be legal under European free trade legislation. Scotland, which has gone furthest on prices, is still testing the legality.

Of course, minimum prices will have the greatest impact on supermarkets and shops, where discount selling is more common than in pubs or bars. But is it an effective way to reduce dangerous drinking and alcohol-related problems?

Minimum prices would have most effect on the cheapest, strongest end of the spectrum, substantially upping the price of budget ciders (like the notorious, discontinued White Lightning). Some of these could more than double in price. For this reason, it has gained the support of a wide range of health campaigners: upping the prices of these drinks could target the most problematic drinkers.

Over at the BBC, Branwen Jeffreys explains some of the evidence cited by those in favour of the move:

Those who support a minimum price say there is strong evidence internationally that price is linked to consumption, and higher consumption is linked to higher harm. They point to Finland where in 2004 a dramatic cut in prices via taxes led within a year to an increase of 9% in consumption, according to official figures.

Most alcohol in Finland is sold through tightly controlled government-run shops. By 2005 alcohol-related problems were the most common cause of death among Finns of working age.

A 2008 model by the University of Sheffield suggested that a high enough minimum price could significantly reduce the impact and cost of alcohol to society. It found that problem drinkers seek out the cheapest ways to get drunk as they tend to be either young or those who drink a lot, and therefore would change their behaviour in response to price increases more than moderate drinkers would. (It has been strongly challenged by the drinks industry).

While the international examples may be compelling, it is worth pointing out that minimum prices have not yet been introduced in a country with a history of few limitations on the sale of alcohol. States in Canada which have used minimum pricing have a history of prohibition, and the Nordic countries have a tradition of selling alcohol through government-owned shops. That's why the example of Scotland will be watched closely.

On the other hand, some question the efficacy of minimum pricing on economic grounds. Tim Harford points out that it would up the profit margins of supermarkets -- and that in fact, if they decided a minimum price amongst themselves (rather than having one imposed by the government), they would be in breach of competition laws. He recommends increasing taxation further instead, as this would ensure that prices rise in proportion and would put the extra revenue in the hands of government rather than supermarkets. Rather paradoxically, minimum prices could make cheap alcohol a very lucrative product for supermarkets (because of the mark up).

Although the long-term benefits to society are difficult to prove conclusively, most people would agree that less cheap alcohol would have a positive effect. The evidence that alcohol consumption goes down when prices goes up is fairly strong. The best economic method of doing this remains to be seen.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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