Scotland now to impose Minimum Pricing for Alcohol

This week the British Supreme Court cleared the way for the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 to be enacted. The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) had mounted a legal challenge to try to halt the price hike, which it said was disproportionate’ and illegal under European law. (Daily Mail) The Act will mandate that retailers have to charge a minimum of 50p per unit of alcohol. This will only affect the price of alcohol in off-licences and supermarkets. In the pub, the price of a pint with 5% ABV is already much higher than the implied price of £1.42. I went round three supermarkets – Asda, Sainsbury’s and Aldi – to see the biggest price hikes implied in the rise.

The extra profit is kept by the retailer, though gross profits may fall as sales volume falls. Premium brands only fall below the minimum price in promotions. With the exception of discounter Aldi, the vast majority of shelf space is occupied by alcohol above the minimum price. Further, there is no escalator. The minimum price will stay the same for the six years that the legislation is in place. However, the Scottish Government claims that 51% of alcohol sold in off-trade is less than 50 pence per unit. The promotions have a big impact. The Scottish people will be deprived of these offers. Many will travel across the border to places like Carlisle and Berwick, to acquire their cheap booze. Or enterprising folks will break the law by illegal sales. This could make booze more accessible to underage drinkers and bring them into regular contact with petty criminals. However, will it reduce the demand for booze? The Scottish Government website quotes Health Secretary Shona Robison.

“This is a historic and far-reaching judgment and a landmark moment in our ambition to turn around Scotland’s troubled relationship with alcohol.

“In a ruling of global significance, the UK Supreme Court has unanimously backed our pioneering and life-saving alcohol pricing policy.

“This has been a long journey and in the five years since the Act was passed, alcohol related deaths in Scotland have increased. With alcohol available for sale at just 18 pence a unit, that death toll remains unacceptably high.

“Given the clear and proven link between consumption and harm, minimum pricing is the most effective and efficient way to tackle the cheap, high strength alcohol that causes so much damage to so many families.

Is minimum pricing effective? Clearly, it will make some alcohol more expensive. But it must be remembered that the tax on alcohol is already very high. The cheapest booze on my list, per unit of alcohol, is the 3 litre box of Perry (Pear Cider) at £4.29. The excise duty is £40.38 per hectolitre. With VAT at 20%, tax is £1.92, or 45% of the retail price. The £16 bottles of spirits (including two well-known brands of Scottish Whisky) are at 40% alcohol. With excise duty at £28.74 per litre of pure alcohol, tax is £13.33 or 83% of the retail price. It has been well-known that alcohol is highly inelastic with respect to price so very large increases in price will make very little difference to demand. This is born out by a graphic from a 2004 report Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England of the UK alcohol consumption in the last century.

In the early part of the twentieth century, there was sharp fall in alcohol consumption from 1900 to the 1930s. There was a sharp drop in the First World War, but after the war the decline continued the pre-war trend. This coincided with a religious revival and the temperance movement. It was started in the nineteenth century by organisations such as the Salvation Army and the Methodists, but taken up by other Christian denominations. In other words, it was a massive cultural change from the bottom, where it became socially unacceptable for many even to touch alcohol. Conversely, the steep decline in religion in the post-war period was accompanied by the rise in alcohol consumption.

The minimum price for alcohol is a fiscal solution being proposed for cultural problems. The outcome of a minimum price will be monopoly profits for the supermarkets and the manufacturers of alcoholic drinks.

It is true that a lot of crime is committed by those intoxicated, other social problems are caused and there are health issues. But the solution is not to increase the price of alcohol. The solution is to change people. The Revival of the early twentieth century, (begun before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914) saw both a fall in alcohol consumption and a fall in crime levels, that continued through the Great Depression. But it was not lacking of alcohol that reduced crime on the early twentieth. Instead, both reductions had a common root in the Christian Faith.

The Scottish Government will no doubt see a fall in sales of alcohol. But this will not represent the reduction in consumption, as cheaper booze will be imported from England, including Scottish Whisky. All that they are doing is treating people as statistics to be dictated to, and manipulated by, their shallow moralistic notions.

Kevin Marshall