An evidence-based alcohol policy is receding into the rear-view mirror

Minimum pricing takes a back seat to multibuy bans – and may not even work anyway.

Friday brought the news that the government is going to be stepping up it's alcohol strategy and moving beyond the previously discussed minimum pricing.

The Telegraph's James Kirkup wrote:

The Coalition’s alcohol strategy — expected to be launched next week — will propose that special deals which encourage shoppers to buy in bulk should be outlawed.

Most supermarkets offer significant discounts for customers buying bottles of wine by the dozen or half-dozen. Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, for example, regularly offer a 25 per cent discount for six bottles of wine.

Ministers believe such promotions give customers a financial incentive to purchase more alcohol than they intended to buy and should be banned.

The Telegraph takes umbrage with these plans, citing "fears that middle-class households will bear the brunt of measures supposedly aimed at troublemaking youths and other anti-social drinkers," and while that is a distasteful way to put it – "middle-class households" and "anti-social drinkers" are not, and never have been, mutually exclusive – it touches upon a problem with expanding the scheme in this way.

Minimum pricing has had its supporters and detractors in these pages. George Eaton pointed out that it would hit the poorest hardest, Samira Shackle argued that "the evidence that alcohol consumption goes down when prices goes up is fairly strong", and I explained why attempting to increase prices through the tax system alone was not likely to be effective. But the one thing which is universally agreed to be a benefit of the proposals is that it is blind to everything but price per unit. As a result, unlike the current duty laws – which impose different taxes on cider, beer, wine and spirits, even going so far as to distinguish "cider" from "high-strength cider" – it cannot help but applied most forcefully where it would have the most impact.

Clamping down on multi-buys, by contrast, may frequently lead to price rises which have very little impact at all on the amount drunk. It is hard to imagine a situation where someone picking up a four-for-three offer on bottles of Moët champagne is likely to become less of a problem drinker if that offer is scrapped.

While it's not the most pressing concern – regardless of what the Telegraph says – it does mark out the transition of this policy package from a "hard", evidence based, attempt to deal with problem drinking to a more populist attempt to make things look like they're changing without doing that much.

Today we find that it may be that even minimum pricing – the part of the alcohol policy which has the most support of the medical community – is a busted flush. A new report from the Institute of Economic Affairs (pdf) takes a cross-national comparison of the effects of alcohol price on consumption – and focuses strongly on illicit consumption, with rates of both smuggled and home-made alcohol consumption rising.

As you would expect, the more unaffordable alcohol is, the higher "unrecorded alcohol consumption" is estimated to be by the WHO, from around 3 litres per person in countries like Finland and Sweden, down to barely half a litre per person in France and Austria.

 

While the author, Christopher Snowdon, is keen to draw parallels with prohibition, citing John Stewart Mill's claim that "to tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition, and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable," it does seem that this "unrecorded alcohol consumption" is rarely as dangerous as bathtub gin. Although the stats are not presented, the more realistic inference – and Snowdon seems to agree, given his references to the geography of the countries involved – is that this unrecorded consumption consists mainly of cross-border sales, especially in richer countries. Not only is this not particularly dangerous, it isn't even really smuggling, given almost all of the countries in the study are within the EU and thus have no requirement to pay duty or declare personal imports.

While it may not be dangerous, this unrecorded consumption adds to the key finding of Snowdon's paper: the total absence of a cross-national correlation between affordability and consumption of alcohol.

Clearly, this all plays back into the debate around minimum pricing. Although Snowdon brings up the risk that minimum pricing encourages moonshine production, and so may even harm health, it's not really important to overreach in that manner.

The key problem for advocates of minimum pricing si that if alcohol price is as poorly correlated with consumption as the above chart shows, then raising it may not do much for public health at all – while still having a strong negative effect on the private purse.

There's still a lot to be said in this debate - not least because an IEA paper, no matter how good, struggles when pitted against a Lancet paper which concludes that (pdf):

Natural experiments in Europe consequent to economic treaties have shown that as alcohol taxes and prices were lowered, so sales, alcohol consumption, and alcohol-related harm have usually increased.

But the argument is far from settled. It may be better if the government just backs off on the whole plan for a while.

Rows of booze. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Welcome to feminism's new gross out frontier

This new movement normalises women by focusing on their bodies, warts and all.

Vaginas are so hot right now. If that sentence shocks you, then you’ve been out of the cultural loop. Thanks to a new wave of television and autobiographies by some very funny women, female privates have moved to the front and centre of popular entertainment.

Male bits, once the only game in town, are now chiefly of interest only as a sidebar to hilarious female riffs on misfiring, awkward and unsatisfactory sex, thanks to recent work by the likes of Lena Dunham, Britain’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge (writer, actor and star of BBC series Fleabag), and now Amy Schumer, whose smash hit “femoir”, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo, recently hit stores.

This is all part of a new movement – what I like to call “gross-out feminism”. It is gleeful, honest to a fault, and practised exclusively by women who long ago kissed goodbye to the capacity to be embarrassed. Its goal – apart from to make people laugh – is to provide a kind of shock therapy to those still harbouring the notion that women don’t have bodily functions, trapped gas, or insubordinate periods. Or that women must either be thin or desperately wishing they were so.

Gross-out feminism works by normalising women through focusing on their bodies: traditionally, the first and final frontier of femininity. It violently pushes all remaining cats out of the bag. Women have smelly, sometimes even extremely malodorous vaginas – Schumer’s smells like “chicken ramen”; “baby diaper” morning breath; explosive diarrhoea; acne. They sometimes fart during sex.

You’d be right if you noticed that this type of feminism doesn’t look like the iconic polemics of Shulamith Firestone, Naomi Wolf or Germaine Greer. It does not fit the sociological paradigm of Natasha Walter, Ariel Levy or Laurie Penny, all of whom have tackled a classic 20th century feminist subject – objectification – with political panache. And no, it’s not related either to the brainy fiction of Erica Jong or Marilyn French.

But gross-out feminism owes much to these. The classic texts of feminism laid down the parameters of the various struggles women engage in on a daily basis. One of these was the battle to be taken as full humans, complete with an independent sexuality. As far back as the 1790s, Mary Wollestonecraft raged against the reductive construction of doll-like femininity.

The new feminism builds on all this, but its toolbox is drawn not from an intellectual arena but rather from a peculiarly modern fascination with personal and especially sexual transparency. Honesty shall set us free: as sociologist Richard Sennett lamented, we moderns trade first and foremost in intimacies. But wrapped tightly in gut-busting hilarity, the relentless personal honesty of Schumer et al loses its potential for hollow narcissism and instead becomes powerful, adding vim to the traditional message to women to be strong and confident.

Schumer in particular paints an honest, if troubling picture of the impact of what Naomi Wolf so famously addressed in The Beauty Myth. Money, pain, time: a bewildering amount of these are required in order for most women to feel presentable, let alone attractive. Schumer nails this, but also admits to her own “beauty myth” victimhood.

Before a date she too waxes, straightens her hair, fasts, and tries to squeeze into Spanx so tight that they threaten to splice her guts in two. Schumer, then, is taking one for the team. She’s performing her truth so that we can exorcise our demons. The intriguing implication is that she, like Dunham and Fey, is an everywoman as well as herself. “I am myself,” in her words. “And I am all of you.”

A new sisterhood

Might this signal a reinvigoration of the idea of a universal “sisterhood” that since the 1970s has buckled under the weight of concerns about racial, ethnic and class difference? Perhaps so.

In her hit sitcom Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge does similar work to Schumer, if less autobiographical. She doesn’t spend much time on her appearance, but when an attractive man calls in the middle of the night asking to come over, waking her up, she excruciatingly manufactures the appearance of having just come in from a night out. She throws off her pyjamas, pulls on her glad rags, a coat, and swigs some wine in preparation. She is soon speaking deadpan to the camera while being taken up the backside. Her sexual honesty is eminently relatable to by millennials, and tinged with sadness. Waller-Bridge’s genius is reading with jaded perfection the sexual proclivities of men half her intellect and beauty.

There are caveats, of course. Some might argue that bringing feminism back into the body merely reaffirms the idea that women are principally bodies rather than whole people. And putting sex front and centre emphasises a potentially one-dimensional representation of what it is to be human. Both of these objections are fair. But when it comes to mainstream, massively entertaining representations of women, gross-out feminism may finally be what has been missing all these years, showing once and for all that the “fair sex” is human in both body and spirit. Warts and all.

Zoe Strimpel is a doctoral researcher in history at the University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.