ASI on the Minimum Price for Alcohol

Uncharacteristically, the Adam Smith Institute has made a serious error in its economic analysis. The idea of alcohol being a Giffen good is certainly a contestable one. There are a couple of pertinent areas here. The first is whether alcohol in the UK meets the requirements of a Giffen good. The second is whether the pattern of discounting is such that installing a minimum price will create the Giffen good conditions.

The Conditions for a Giffen Good. (Descriptions here and here)

  1. A staple on which people spend a significant part of their income.
  2. Applies to the very poor.
  3. There are no close substitutes

The current state of play in the UK market.

1. The major supermarkets concentrate their promotions on premium brands. Most of the promotions for cider & beer are for premium brands. The wine promotions similarly are mostly for the more expensive (& often branded) varieties. Own brand (especially the budget brands) are less frequently and less deeply discounted.

2. Many promotions do not involve a gross loss for the supermarket. By allocating space for high volume promotions a small gross margin can generate a larger net profit than the full price low turn product. It is all about overhead absorption.

3. Promotions made more profitable by promotional & volume discounts from the suppliers.  As I regularly shop at more than one major supermarket I notice similar promotions across different supermarkets.

4. Many promotions are partly spurious. For instance I recently noticed a bottle of standard Cava at half price. The full price would significantly more the vintage variety. Or compare the undiscounted price per litre for large packs of beer with the smaller pack sizes. You will find the “undiscounted” price is often more expensive, indicating the discount is exaggerated.

5. Many people pay the top prices at clubs and pubs in city centres. Cheaper prices are obtained at local pubs (known as bars in the USA & on mainland Europe). Much cheaper still is the supermarket. So for English bitter beer, you pay £5 per pint (568ml) in a club in town centres, £3.50 in a local pub, £2 equivalent for a 500ml bottle, £1.40 for a 4 pack cans and £0.99 for the best offers of 3 x 8 440ml can packs. Therefore, there are many close substitutes without change of brand, though the quality and ambience may not be the same! Higher prices lead to the next best substitute, which is why many choose to drink at home, or on the street, rather than in the more sociable public houses.

6. The UK is a rich country. In spending power (purchasing power parity) is at least 35 times richer than in 1750 (or modern day Ethiopia). In nominal terms at least 200 times richer. Someone on the minimum wage with the proverbial wife and two kids, will have in excess of £1200 per month disposable income. If an alcoholic drinking the cheapest booze – 3 litres of 6% cider (at £1 per litre) a day, they would spend just 10% of their income on booze. At 70p per unit minimum (10ml of pure alcohol) they would see this rise to a third of income. This is the most extreme case. In practice, most problem drinkers consume less and do not get the cheapest alcohol from the cheapest source. There are opportunities for substituting to cheaper forms of alcohol and reducing other forms of consumption.

In its flawed analysis the ASI actually understates the case against the minimum price of alcohol. Any proposed level of pricing would simply be ineffective in reducing alcohol consumption.  It will merely serve to hasten the decline in pubs and drive people down market. Most of the discounting in supermarkets is aimed at getting consumers to move up market, where the larger profits reside. The only effective levels of seriously reducing alcohol consumption would be far above the bounds of political acceptability.

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