Comment: Price not always right in booze battle

After the festive binge come the attempts at moderation – or, in some cases, abstention. A group of journalists are the latest to embark on an alcohol-free month as part of an experiment in seeing how they will cope and how it might affect their health and behaviour. And there may be lessons here for government and the industry.
Terry Murden. Picture: Phil WilkinsonTerry Murden. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Terry Murden. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

After a self-imposed ban in October, I can vouch for the benefits of sobriety despite the ever-present prospect of yielding to temptation. It was easier than I expected.

The alcohol industry, of course, is playing its part in urging us all to “drink responsibly”, a laudable if convenient way for it to avoid the less palatable call for us to “drink less”. ­Inevitably, this kind of self-imposed ordinance runs counter to the industry’s broader hope that we will actually “drink more”. How else would companies grow their businesses?

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Many industries are faced with a similar dilemma, the classic case being the tobacco business. While it has been legislated against and demonised through advertising bans, health warnings on packets and restrictions on sales, the profits of the tobacco firms keep rising.

Oil companies and other fossil fuel businesses produce the energy that keeps the world ticking while being accused of eroding our quality of life. Packaging firms are tainted with adding to the waste mountain, while critics say that manufacturers of sugary food and drinks are a curse on consumers’ health.

According to figures from charity Alcohol Focus Scotland, alcohol harm is costing the country £3.6 billion a year, tobacco £1.1bn and obesity up to £1.4bn. No-one is arguing against the need to tackle these issues. But how does a country like Scotland, home to some of the world’s most famous sugary food, fizzy and alcoholic drinks, tackle these problems without damaging one of its biggest growth sectors?

In the case of alcohol, the battle still to be won is over minimum pricing. Further legal hearings are due against the Scottish Government’s plans, not least from the Scotch Whisky Association.

Alcohol Focus Scotland is not alone in accusing the drinks industry of trying to use the same sort of delaying tactics that the tobacco giants employed over several decades.

But minimum pricing is a questionable way of tackling the binge drinking culture. It is yet to be proved that raising the price will have the desired impact, and the government’s proposals are full of anomalies.

The price will be fixed at 50p per unit of alcohol, which means the cost of many drinks from vodka to craft beer will rise sharply, while Buckfast wine – which has been linked to 5,000 crimes over three years – will remain unchanged as a 75cl bottle contains 11 units and already costs about £7. Clearly, those buying it are not put off by the price.

Nor are those so-called “social” drinkers among the middle classes who will pay whatever it takes for a booze-fulled evening. There were plenty of them joining the long queues for £16 bottles of wine at the Hogmanay ball at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh.

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Price alone will not work as a deterrent. Those who want to drink will do so, as will those who want to smoke and eat burgers.

But pricing does have a role to play. Some in the industry believe that individuals wanting to drink to excess get well-oiled on cheap supermarket booze before they go out. They are already drunk before they arrive at the pubs and clubs.

The smoking ban in pubs and in the workplace has shown that the best way to control the problem is by restricting its availability. It may mean reintroducing tighter licensing hours in pubs and controlling the price and availability of alcohol via retailers. Drinkers should also be encouraged to drink in the pubs which provide a controlled environment and distribute alcohol by a legal measure. It would also help save the pub trade.

As part of a much-needed education campaign, all outlets should be forced to stock non-alcoholic beers and wines. The reputation of these drinks is poor, but the quality in recent years has improved. Some pubs, however, do not sell them. Time for the industry, marketeers and the mandarins in government to get their heads together and come up with some broader thinking. It is a worthy aim for the new year.

Twitter: @TerryMurden1