Hugh McLachlan: No taste for drink policy

Plans to use the law to influence our consumption of alcohol may or may not work, but they represent a poor state–citizen relationship, writes Hugh McLachlan

The UK Government and the Scottish Government are both concerned about the amount of alcohol that is consumed in these isles. It is not clear that they should be. The policies which they have adopted and which they propose are inappropriate. They do not cohere well with any plausible notion of what a proper relationship between a state and its citizens should be. They appear arbitrary, whimsical and paternalistic.

Governments have a legitimate role in passing laws regarding the production, sale and consumption of alcohol. However, governments in general often pass very bad laws regarding alcohol. Such laws often have unintended consequences. The instance of prohibition in the US is one of the best examples of a policy that had disastrous consequences.

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David Cameron, Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond are united in supporting the dubious policy of minimum pricing with regard to alcohol. It might or might not turn out that such a policy would have good effects and no bad ones. However, public policies cannot always be justified merely in terms of their outcomes. It matters why things come about. It matters what is done, why it is done and how it is done.

It seems arbitrary and whimsical to seek to justify a policy of minimum pricing for alcohol when there is no attempt to apply the suggested rationale for the policy to the sale of all goods and services. Similarly, to charge all drinkers a minimum price per unit of alcohol because some drinkers are conceived to be a problem is unjust and unfair.

The main reason given in support of a minimum price per unit of alcohol is that it would save lives. This does not justify the policy. We ought to raise the minimum price to such an extent that very few people could afford to drink regularly if a reduction in deaths was a sufficient reason for introducing a public policy. However, it is not a sufficient reason.

We might reduce considerably the number of those who are killed by, say, cycling, parachuting or rock climbing if we made such activities illegal or, somehow, prohibitively expensive. It is better that we live in such a society where people are permitted and able to run the risks of killing themselves by taking part in such activities.

In terms of the monetary effect on particular drinkers, it might well not matter very much whether or not this policy were to be introduced. However, it matters in terms of the sort of society we live in and the sort of relationship between the government and the citizen we are prepared to accept.

Governments also have a legitimate role in compiling and disseminating information about the effects of the consumption of alcohol. However, there is a profound difference between information and propaganda. To present information to enable people to make informed decisions about their own behaviour is one thing. To try to induce them to make particular decisions and to act in particular ways is another thing.

It is appropriate for governments to try to rationally persuade us to believe particular things. In all but extreme and exceptional circumstances, it is not appropriate for governments to try to humour, dupe or cajole us into believing particular things.

The Alcohol Behaviour Change campaign was launched in Scotland on 7 February. According to Auriole Price, who designed an app for it that can be downloaded onto mobile phones: “The main aim of the app is to shock people into drinking just a little bit less. We are appealing to people’s vanity as the effects of alcohol can include red broken veins on the cheeks, bloodshot eyes, a bloated face and deeper wrinkles.” This clearly suggests that we can expect the tone of the campaign to be that of propaganda. Typically, such health campaigns in Scotland and the UK in general have taken such a form.

Both governments recommend that we do not regularly consume any more than the equivalent of about one and a half pints of beer per day if we are male and even less if we are female. They suggest that there is a significant risk of serious illnesses if we exceed these limits.

However, it is not made clear what the extent of the risks actually is. The information is not presented in such a way that any particular person can readily assess whether, for them, the risks of drinking more than the suggested limits are rationally worth running.

For instance, it is said that if one is male and drinks regularly more than about four pints per day, compared to a non-drinker, one could be, for instance, twice as likely to develop liver cirrhosis and 1.8 times as likely to develop high blood pressure. However, this is not useful information unless one knows how likely it is that someone who does not drink will suffer from cirrhosis of the liver or develop high blood pressure. It is propaganda.

After all, one can become twice as likely to win the lottery by buying two tickets rather than one. Since the chances of winning the lottery are remote, this increased likelihood would not be considered to be of any great significance to most who play the lottery.

The Scottish and the UK governments say that if we regularly drink above the recommended daily limits, we run the risk of damaging our health. However, if we enjoy particular activities, we are often quite prepared to run such risks. It depends on various factors including our attitude towards risk in general, and the extent of our actual and anticipated pleasure from the activity in question.

For instance, if we play football, climb mountains or ride a bicycle, we face risks, dangers and hazards. If we have sex, we run various risks including the risk of becoming pregnant. If we remain pregnant, we run risks. If we play golf, we very greatly increase our chances of being hit by a golf ball.

It would be absurd to talk about, say, a recommended limit on the number of mountains that we climbed or on the number of miles that we cycled in busy traffic. There is no particular wise or sensible amount for such things. So it is with alcohol. The notion of a recommended amount of alcohol is a very curious one. It is impertinence. We should resent it. Someone who gave up heavy drinking and took up cycling might greatly increase his chances of a premature death. However, it does not follow that anyone who did so would be acting unwisely or irrationally. Such a change in lifestyle might be a profound change for the better even if it were to prove to be fatal for some unfortunate people.

I now choose to consume zero units of alcohol per day and have done so for many happy years. I also choose to cycle zero miles per day. Nonetheless, I do not want to encourage any one to drink nor to discourage any one from cycling. Whether it is rational for other people to drink alcohol or ride a bicycle is not a question that I could answer even if I wanted to.

It is not the business of the government to raise such questions, far less to try to answer them for us. The law should be impartial in its dealings with citizens and impartial with regard to the legal lifestyle choices they make.

The state ought to treat citizens impartially as autonomous, rational adults. It should not treat them as children or as mere means to their political ends. The actual and proposed policies regarding alcohol consumption are misconceived.

Hugh McLachlan is professor of applied philosophy in the Glasgow School for Business and Society at Glasgow Caledonian University