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The Big Debate: minimum alcohol pricing

Should there be a minimum price on alcohol to deter excessive drinking?

This month, the Scottish government is being sued over their new minimum alcohol pricing law – by the Scotch Whisky Association. Is it a good policy?

YES  says Tom Foster
Yes, but in a certain context. We shouldn’t be fooled into believing that excessive drinking will stop immediately when a minimum price is charged per unit; it should be just one part of a strategy to warn people off excessive drinking. The majority of us are guilty of excessively drinking – not stopping when we know it’s probably best.
The one-off drunken night may not cause any seriously damaging after-effects, just a nasty hangover and possibly a little sick in your toilet. However, what if it isn’t just a hangover but something more severe?
This is not hyperbolic scaremongering: I think all of us have experienced or witnessed fights and injuries caused by excessive drinking. Whilst they may have been minor injuries, or fights which were over within a couple of seconds, these situations often have the potential to get out of control.
Consider that 76,000 facial injuries in the UK each year are linked to drunken violence, and alcohol is a feature of between 20 and 30 per cent of all accidents. Watch any episode of the Channel 4 documentary ‘24 Hours in A&E’ to see how binge drinking can take a nasty turn – or even go out to a club for a first-hand experience.
Then there’s our relationship with alcohol in general: can we genuinely limit ourselves to a certain amount of drinks on a night out or per week? Trying to do this is a lot more difficult than it sounds, for alcohol can often be almost a requisite of having a good time, enjoying social events and relaxing in the evening.
Alcohol misuse accounts for more than 20,000 premature deaths per year; this includes cancer, liver disease and injury. So it is time students, and society as a whole, assesses the relationship that they have with alcohol.
Partly, the problem of binge drinking is that we don’t have any idea of how many units we actually drink.
Medical guidelines say that men are supposed to drink no more than 21 units a week; 14 units for women. I think we’ve all heard that rule; however, it may be surprising how easy it is to overstep it.
Let’s consider how much an average student may consume. For example, a pre-drink could be Frosty Jack cider. A 500ml Frosty Jack cider has 3.8 units, and on Asda online you can buy 2 litres of the stuff, ie. more than 15 units, for £3.79. Then you go to the club and order whatever is on the deals menu; one deal I recently had was £2 for a double vodka and mixer. A double of a spirit averages at about 2 units of alcohol, so if on the night you order two doubles then you consume 4 units.
Thus we have reached 19.2 units, nearly the week’s guideline amount, and on your next night out that week you will almost certainly cross the line.
While the £2 deal may be a rarity, the fact that clubs sell alcohol so cheaply is why minimum alcohol pricing may not be a bad idea. In 2008, Sheffield University found that increasing price reduces consumption, with this effect being more pronounced amongst the most vulnerable drinkers.
There should be more research into how to make minimum pricing palatable to both sides – the industry and the consumer – by making alcohol affordable but still expensive enough to deter excessive drinking.
No matter what, we should not automatically dismiss the idea as the government trying to ruin our night out, as they may have a point.

NO says Jack Daniels
Just as there was widespread opposition to seatbelt laws in the ‘70s, many people’s reaction to this new alcohol law is one of indignance.
Indeed, there is a strong case to be made against it from a libertarian standpoint – that the government should not be meddling with our alcohol consumption; that, just as it is our choice to not wear a seatbelt, it is our choice to drink ourselves into an early grave, and the ever-unpopular “State” should not be sticking their noses in.
This sounds fine, until you remember how many people are killed each year by un-belted passengers flying into them, and how many people are killed each year by drunk drivers. On second thoughts, maybe it’s not such a strong case after all?
My opposition to this law is much more subtle and complex than the libertarian’s. I wholeheartedly support the government’s efforts to reduce the amount we drink as a nation. I have concluded, after several encounters with horrified foreigners, that our drinking culture is a bit out of control.
However, an indiscriminate financial penalty does not seem like a sensible, or fair, solution. This is a policy which will have very little impact on those who can afford to go without the super-savings beer deals at Tesco.
People with money will not drink less alcohol under this new law, and it is not fair to argue (as some have) that the rich are not the ones who are drinking problematically. You only have to look around Brighton on a Friday night to know that this isn’t the case.
So who will be affected? Clearly, those people who cannot afford to spend the extra money. It is not right that “the poor” should have to pay for problems which have been brought about by society as a whole, while “the rich” continue to drink at leisure.
It might have been fairer to levy a tax on expensive or luxury alcohols (champagne, anyone?) and use the money raised to invest in alcohol education. Yet again, those worse-off in our society are bearing the brunt of a social policy that has not been thought through.
Furthermore, drinking alcohol is something that is engaged in as a pleasurable activity across all social groups, and to treat it as solely problematic is to misunderstand its place in our culture.
A policy which has such a clear impact on the economically disadvantaged, and which is so clearly designed to tackle binge drinking, inevitably creates a link between these two things – in other words, it reinforces the idea that it is ‘the poor’ who are wreaking havoc on ‘our streets’.
This is a notion borne out of prejudice and snobbery, and it is one we should be actively resisting.
From slashing benefits and forcing library closures to offering tax breaks to millionaires, this government has shown nothing but contempt for the UK’s poor, and while this new measure may be well-intentioned, I feel that it still has its roots in a fundamental mistrust of those who haven’t succeeded financially.
The goverment needs to rethink its strategy here, and realise that such a complex problem cannot, and should not, be solved by increasing the already-great financial strain on those who have less.

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