Minimum pricing: the key questions

Some aspects of the debate are more settled than others.

Minimum pricing for alcohol is back in the news today, as ministers are expected to announce that the price per unit will be 45p.

Since the new information is rather technical (importantly, the average price-per-unit in a recent IFS study was 44.8p, so this price will have a material effect), what we're actually getting is less a discussion of whether 45p is too high, too low or just right, and more rehashing of old arguments. So here they are again.

Minimum pricing lowers alcohol consumption

The Lancet concludes:

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.

Samira Shackle wrote in February that:

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's hardly surprising. All that is being concluded is that, on a societal basis, alcohol sales obey the laws of supply and demand (as an aside, it's fascinating that those normally most wedded to this rule of thumb are quickest to argue with it in this situation).

There is some countervailing evidence. An IEA paper suggests that there is no cross-national correlation between affordability of alcohol and total consumption:

Chart

Nonetheless, the balance of evidence is strongly on the side of minimum pricing having some effect on consumption.

Minimum pricing hits some types of problem drinkers harder than others

Alcoholics – people with a pathological addiction to alcohol – are unlikely to reduce their consumption that much in the face of minimum pricing. It is nearly the definition of addiction that you prioritise feeding that addiction, and that is no different with alcoholism. Minimum pricing hurts alcoholics with basically no upside (although for a few it may be the final straw to seek help).

The policy is instead aimed at a different sort of problem drinkers: binge drinkers, who suffer their own health problems but are thought to be far more price-sensitive.

In this aspect it can be seen as a trade-off: hurting alcoholics to help binge drinkers.

Minimum pricing hits the poor hardest

George Eaton writes:

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.'

Additionally, price-based controls always hit the poor hardest by their very nature. That doesn't necessarily mean they're aimed at the poor, just that the mechanism by which they work has less effect on people with enough disposable income not to care (cf. fuel duty, carbon taxes, prescription charges and passport fees).

Minimum pricing is a boon for supermarkets

Matt Cavanagh writes:

Last year’s IFS study [pdf] estimated that, assuming ‘no behavioural response from consumers and no wider price effects’, the 45p MUP proposed by the SNP in 2010, if introduced across the UK, ‘would transfer £1.4 billion from alcohol consumers to producers and retailers’.

This transfer is largely unavoidable if the major benefit of minimum pricing – the fact that it prevents retailers absorbing the cost – is to be maintained. As I wrote in March:

In order to prevent this increase being absorbed by supermarkets as a loss-leader (even with duty at the much lower current rates, it is possible to buy some drinks which are sold for less than the combined duty and VAT charged on them), this would have to be combined with legislation preventing shops from selling for less than the duty charged on the drink.

Enacting this plan would indeed result in a sharp rise in alcohol prices, with most or all of the increase going to the treasury rather than the supermarkets or drinks companies. But the increase would come from all drinks, rather than just the cheaper ones that the proposed minimum price is targeting.

It might be illegal under EU law

The European Union is quite prescriptive about how sin taxes work. The European Commission has warned that Scotland's implementation "causes problems with the compatibility with the EU Treaty", and previous attempts have been shot down by the courts. Not that that's not a reason not to try.

Of course, none of these questions address what is really the heart of the matter: how far does the government's right or responsibility to alter people's behaviour to protect them extend? That's a valid debate to have; but it is a separate one from whether minimum pricing would work at achieving its stated goals. To that, the answer is a cautious yes, but it remains worth noting that its goals are reducible to "stopping poorer binge drinkers from drinking so much". That may still be a valid aim, but its a weaker one that many defenders have made it out to be.

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.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue