BRITAIN has a binge drinking problem. Over half of the country’s 15 and 16 year old girls binge drink at least once a month, more than in any other European country. Ambulance services are distracted from dealing with life-threatening conditions by calls to deal with injured drunks. Seven per cent of all hospital admissions are alcohol-related.
To stop this, the government suggested plans to ban cheap alcohol by bringing in a minimum alcohol price, a move that would make every drink cost at least 45p for each unit of alcohol it contains. A single can of strong lager could cost no less than £1.56, a bottle of wine no less than £4.22. Although the government is reportedly reconsidering the move, it’s worth restating exactly what minimum pricing would entail.
In short, the motives behind the policy are faultless, but its logic is flawed. Dealing with binge drinking is vital, but this nanny state measure would be the wrong policy at the wrong time.
You might not guess it from newspaper photos of drunken revellers ending their night out in a police van or an ambulance, but we already drink less than we used to. In 2010, the average British adult drank a fifth less than in 2005. Heavy drinking – over eight units (six for women) at least once a week – fell by 10 per cent for men and 14 per cent for women between 2007 and 2011. The government expects this trend to continue, even without a minimum price. So why do we need it?
We will not end “Binge Britain” behaviour simply by forcing shops and pubs to charge higher prices. To solve the problem, we must recognise that Britain has a drinking divide. On one side are the vast majority who drink in moderation. On the other are the reckless few who drink too much too often. That must be addressed, but it is also what makes the minimum alcohol price so deeply unfair.
Some argue that binge-drinking is such a serious issue that the government must do everything in its power to make drinking less attractive and less affordable. It is an attitude that some in government share. That is why we pay more than £1 to the taxman for every pint we drink, and why Brits account for 40 per cent of all beer duty paid in the EU, despite drinking just 13 per cent of the total beer consumed.
Of course, binge drinkers like cheap booze. But so do millions of sensible drinkers who like deals that make money go further; the pensioner couple who like a bottle of wine at the weekend, or the low-paid worker who likes watching the football with a beer. They are doing no harm to anyone, and yet they would be hit hardest by a minimum alcohol price. The poorest 20 per cent of households would pay an extra £300m a year, whereas the richest 10 per cent would pay disproportionately less.
To add insult to injury, a minimum price would not even raise money that the Treasury could put to good use. The government expects the measure would cost ordinary drinkers £1bn a year, but the proceeds would mostly go to large alcohol retailers. Treasury coffers, on the other hand, would lose £200m a year in lost revenues.
There might be some helpful side effects – like less crime or fewer health problems – that could save money, though I am sceptical. But the lost tax revenue would dwarf any savings made. It is unfair and illogical to ask responsible social drinkers to fund a policy which will leave a gaping hole in government accounts.
What is more, cost is not the main reason people drink dangerously. If this policy worked, the corollary would be that all those European countries with cheaper drink would have their streets littered with alcoholics. That is plainly not the case. In Germany, the average pint will set you back around a pound less than it does in Britain, and the country’s average alcohol consumption is actually lower. Alcoholics do not count their pennies. People who want to drink themselves senseless will do so, whatever the price.
That is why the government would be right to change course on plans for a minimum alcohol price. The best way to tackle binge drinking is to crack down on public drunkenness, to punish establishments that serve underage drinkers, and to keep teaching young people about the health risks of too many big nights out. We need to attack the culture of binge drinking rather than the finances of the ordinary family. That will achieve far more than punishing people for enjoying one of life’s simple pleasures.
David Davis is Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden.