If David Cameron's announcement of a minimum price for alcohol was designed to distract attention from the Budget [Paul Waugh notes that in the last 10 years there have only been three ministerial statements on a Friday], it seems an odd choice of policy. At a time of falling real wages, here's yet another policy that tightens the squeeze on consumers.
The proposed 40p minimum unit price would increase the price of a £2.99 bottle of red wine to £3.76, the price of a 75p can of lager to £1.20 and the price of an 87p can of strong cider to £1.60. In addition, the government is considering banning the sale of multi-buy discount deals [e.g two crates for £20] in supermarkets. The Guardian notes that at 40p a unit, two 20-pack crates of Strongbow cider would cost a minimum of £37.30 as opposed to £20 at present.
Cameron's justification for the policy is that it could mean "50,000 fewer crimes each year and 900 fewer alcohol related deaths per year by the end of the decade." But whether or not these claims are born out [and if it doesn't work, will the government increase the price further?], the policy has two major shortcomings. First, that it penalises responsible as well as irresponsible drinkers [an approach at odds with Cameron's traditional emphasis on "individual responsibility"] and second that it hits the poorest hardest. As a recent ONS study noted:
People in poorer households spend a greater proportion of their disposable income on alcohol duty than higher wage earners.
In addition, any windfall will go to retailers and drinks manufacturers, rather than the state, which could use it for deficit reduction or alcohol-related programmes.
It's for these reasons that some in the cabinet, most notably Andrew Lansley, are sceptical. The Health Secretary told the Spectator last year:
I don't like a minimum price, we are acting against below cost selling. My problem with a minimum price, well I have two problems. One is it's regressive, so there are perfectly normal families who just don't happen to have much money who like to buy cheap beer or cheap wine. Should they be prevented? No, I don't think so and if you put in a minimum price, one of the journalists calculated that if you set it at 50p a unit it would add £600 million to the profits of retailers and drinks manufacturers which doesn't seem to me to be the right thing to do in these circumstances.
But, unsurprisingly, the hapless Lansley has been overruled.
There could, however, be some virtuous outcomes from the policy. It could help revive the pub trade, where the minimum unit price already exceeds 40p, by reducing the availability of cheap supermarket alcohol. In turn, this could encourage more sociable drinking.
But what do the public think? According to a recent ComRes poll, 44 per cent are in favour, with 41 per cent opposed. The political problem for Cameron is that, at a time of austerity, this is yet another policy that hits the poorest hardest. Forget the "squeezed middle", minimum pricing will hit the squashed bottom.