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.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

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