Criticising the Welsh government’s decision to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol, Bill Wirtz argues it is possible to curb consumer drinking through education rather than the heavy hand of the law.
There should, however, be no ambiguity about one point: the consumption of alcohol does bring health risks that all consumers should be aware of. Educational practices should promote and enable responsible drinkers without falling into blatant paternalism the likes of which will infantilise the Welsh consumer of their consumer choice.
In an effort to combat alcohol-related deaths, illnesses and injuries, the Welsh government has approved a law in June that will see the introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol. Ahead of its introduction next year, this autumn the Welsh government will determine the minimum price companies will need to charge.
Wales is hardly re-inventing the wheel by introducing minimum-unit pricing. This year, the Scottish government introduced the measure after being held back by the Supreme Court for six years. The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg had ruled (in an earlier decision) that Scotland would only be allowed to set minimum pricing if it were able to prove that the measure would improve the condition for public health. However, the Supreme Court’s conclusion was that “Minimum pricing is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. It would stand to reason that the “proportionate means” part of the argument was actually backed up by science, but the opposite is the case: no evidence points the fact that minimum pricing would actually reduce the consumption of spirits.
Empirical evidence from other EU member states has shown that large-scale meddling in the food market often backfires. This has been shown in the example of Denmark, which introduced a special fat tax on certain goods, only to repeal the bill (with the same majority) 15 months later. What had happened? Not only was the tax an additional burden on people with low incomes, it also incentivised consumers to downgrade to cheaper products in the supermarket (while maintaining their consumptions of fats), leading to no impact on health and minor impact on consumption overall.
The evidence in favour of minimum alcohol pricing is simply not here. In a 2013 review of 19 studies, only two found that a significant and substantial reduction in drinking rates in response to alcohol price rises – “and even these two showed mixed results”. Earlier studies found responsiveness to prices to be close to zero.” This 1995 paper found that the heaviest drinkers’ responsiveness to price changes was statistically indistinguishable from zero, though it was based on very old data from the 1980s. This more recent one found that hazardous and harmful drinkers (people who consume more than 17.5 units per week) had a very low response to price changes.
Minimum alcohol pricing is inherently a regressive measure, as it hits low-income households the most. The measure is therefore not only failing to achieve its own objectives, it is also unfair to a large chunk of the population While minimum prices try to prevent consumers to pivot to lower-quality products, we need to realise that funds are fungible. Nothing prevents consumers to spend less money on healthy food or other essential items, in order to afford their consumption of booze.
An even more concerning issue could be a new rise in black market alcohol sales, which are known to bring considerable health hazards to the table. Given this regressive measure hits low incomes the hardest, it makes it likely that cities like Cardiff or Swansea will see a massive rise in illicit alcohol dealers adding to the already existing black market presence for drugs.
There should, however, be no ambiguity about one point: the consumption of alcohol does bring health risks that all consumers should be aware off. Educational practices should promote and enable responsible drinkers, without falling into blatant paternalism, the likes of which will infantilise the Welsh consumer and their consumer choice.
In the Committee Stage 1 Report in March of this year, the committee on health and social care & sports writes: “We note, and agree with stakeholders, that enabling the minimum unit price to be determined in regulations could ensure its impact and effectiveness can be reviewed and updated (if necessary) in a timely manner.” Let’s hope that lawmakers will stay true to this promise, and change the policy if the scientific evidence contradicts them.