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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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity