Monday, 13 February 2012

This Doesn't Add Up


Scotland on Sunday had a long piece yesterday titled "The SNP's Drink Problem". This discussed minimum unit pricing of alcohol as a means of limiting binge drinking and associated social problems. There wasn't that much new in it and of course, it was mainly about the internal politicking that accompanies such things. One thing struck me about it though. The current unit price of alcohol - some kind of average I assume - is stated to be 43p for off sales. For cider it is 20p. The unit price over a bar is currently £1.31. I imagine the figures for England and Wales won't differ that much.

Now I usually leave this kind of thing to Mudgie, as he is much better at it, but it seems to me that any organisation or individual supporting increasing the minimum price in an effort to curtail anything is way off beam. Those for whom alcohol looms too large in their lives will still find ways to get smashed, probably at the expense of their family and own well being, or by illicit hooch or whatever, while those that have little by way of dosh, but drink responsibly at home, will get duffed in the purse to no good effect. I know these are points Mudgie has made before.

Turning to pubs, it would seem pretty damn obvious, that minimum pricing will not save a single pub.  I'm all for saving pubs though and like CAMRA, who support minimum pricing, I believe the pub is the most appropriate place to drink alcohol responsibly, but is this really the way to go about it? Maybe if minimum pricing had been considered long ago, before the gap got out of hand, a case for minimum pricing could be made, but now it just seems the wrong policy at the wrong time.   A case for supporting a ban on below cost selling of alcohol could certainly be made and could probably be supported, but minimum pricing is a dangerous Trojan Horse and support for it  seems to place CAMRA a little too close to the anti alcohol camp, a place where surely an organisation dedicated to beer drinking ought not to be?

The prohibitionists already have a foot in the door and minimum pricing wedges it open further.  It is no means certain that it will be to the advantage of pub drinkers and pubs as Mudgie points out. CAMRA as an organisation needs to think again.

One of the reasons given by CAMRA is to stop below cost selling, but that could be achieved through other means.  Their document to the Scottish Government conflates, wrongly I believe, the issues of minimum pricing and below cost sales.

23 comments:

Ghost Drinker said...

When the numbskulls that supposedly run this place will figure out that tackling this country's alcohol problem cannot be solved in any way by price, I do not know..

Cooking Lager said...

Well said.

What surprises me are those that think 40p or 50p a unit will stay at that level, and people will pack out pubs horrified at quid a can lager.

All other examples of sin taxation, from fuel to fags, the tax rises put it on an accelerator above inflation. Governments are desperate to find the acceptable tax rise.

It will not be that many years before the minimum price affects the cheaper end of the pubs trade, at around 80p a unit.

Whether you drink real ale or not, it is possible to appreciate a campaign that seeks to preserve a tradition and extend choice. When that, CAMRA is wonderful.

As a campaign against slabs of lager, for piss weak peoples pints & for higher grog prices CAMRA loses all the goodwill 40 years of being a national treasure affords it.

Save it, Tand, before it is too late.

Curmudgeon said...

Indeed, as I pointed out in the post you linked to, the Sheffield University study used to support minimum pricing actually suggests that a differential minimum price between off- and on-trades leads to the most "beneficial" outcomes.

Matt said...

I think it was a Scot, the former Home Secretary John Reid, who pointed out that increasing the tax on cigarettes does nothing to cut consumption but only increases the percentage of their income poor people addicted to tobacco have to spend maintaining their habit. I've not much time for Reid politically given he's a Stalinist turned Blairite but on this he's spot on. The same obviously applies to alcohol too.

Saga Of Nails said...

I can see both sides of the argument here.
The thing is that no matter how you look at it, alcohol is a powerful drug that is addictive to many and does cause a significant amount of damage to society.
I don't think the principle of minimum pricing is a bad thing, but there really should be detailed studies into which alcohol consumption is causing which particular damage to our society. For instance, minimum pricing would not make our streets much safer on a Friday or Saturday night, as the people who are making it unsafe are not the ones at home with a six quid bottle of vodka, but are more likely to be the ones getting tanked up on £3.50 bottles of Bud, or such.
Let's not forget that most alcohol consumption does no damage to either the individuals or society at large.

David Mayhall said...

Peter, I pretty much agree with you but for differing reasons.Self-interest beats outright misinformation, which is where the drinks industry has put their faith.

There are of course many, seductive reasons to support a minimum pricing policy and I’m sure we've all heard the arguments both for & against.

It should in theory impose a floor on loss-leader supermarket alcohol pricing while not affecting the on-trade, thus closing the yawning gap on price between the two. Minimum pricing should also in theory appease the health lobby and, at last, remove claims of any irresponsible alcohol retailing.

However personally I think we need to stop for a long minute and look well beyond these arguments and think long and hard about what minimum pricing actually will entail. My main concern is it will mean we have gone along with the notion that people, outside of our own industry, are better qualified and will be involved in setting alcohol prices, because we’re not capable ourselves of setting prices in a responsible way.

I believe it’s a massive camouflaged bear pit, which is being dug by Alcohol Concern and the health lobby, in what presently seems like a sun-lit forest clearing. This is because once the over-riding principle has been conceded — that a minimum unit price needs to be set — the health lobby can then focus on throwing spears into the pit and the pressure will refocus on not whether, but when, the minimum price needs be raised to produce the optimum effect on public health.

The danger is obvious, that the minimum price would crank up over the years until it is seen to be having a meaningful effect on consumption — and then rise some more, just so the health lobbyists are convinced it is having the desired effect.

Minimum pricing would create the vehicle for certain quarters to punish alcohol by way of pricing in a way akin to tobacco. It would pitch our industry into a new and never-ending public debate where we are forever on the back foot.

Handing over the power to fix the price of alcohol to a committee or quango of do-gooders and health fanatics would be a recipe for non-ending and burdensome regulation and the politicisation of pricing. There is simply no knowing where it would all end up.

A collective angst appears to have seized the public debate on alcohol consumption, so perception and reality are now barely on nodding terms and this with the pub trade’s credentials as the home of supervised consumption having been reinforced over the past few years by ever-higher retail standards.

My argument therefore is like yours that the real debate should be about how public and economic alcohol policies and duty levels can be used to encourage greater use of the on trade as the civilised environment for its consumption and the preservation of communities and their collective spirit .

Tandleman said...

"I believe it’s a massive camouflaged bear pit, which is being dug by Alcohol Concern and the health lobby, in what presently seems like a sun-lit forest clearing."

I agree.

Paul Bailey said...

Definitely time for CAMRA to re-think on this one. As an old colleague of mine used to say "You can't run with the hare AND hunt with the hounds!"

pintsandpubs said...

I agree and the 'Below Cost Alcohol' is the one CAMRA campaign that makes me uneasy. I share the feeling that it's 'where an organisation dedicated to beer drinking ought not to be'.

The stated aim is that it 'would result in supermarkets being unable to sell beer below an average cost price of around 80p a pint', and goes on to say 'An 80p per pint floor price would have no effect on real ale or pubs'. I'm sure they mean no 'negative' effect, but I can't see it would have any positive effect either.

RedNev said...

It's quite simple: once you concede minimum pricing, raising the minimum price per unit will be a simple administrative measure, probably employing an above-inflation escalator. Having conceded the principle, CAMRA's only campaigning tool will be to haggle over the level, and we've seen how successful they've been at that in relation to beer duty. Sooner or later, minimum pricing will be pushing up pub prices.

CAMRA is doing this under the delusion that people will flock to pubs if off-sales prices go up, a nonsense that Cooking Lager has rightly ridiculed on many occasions. CAMRA needs to realise that - considering prices as a factor in pub-going - it's the high cost of pub prices, not the cheapness of off sales, that is driving many people out of pubs.

Leigh said...

100% agree, Tand. It's another way of the scottish using the 'class' system as a rod to beat drinkers with. For me, the message is very much 'if you're on low income, then we'll make it so you can't afford alcohol'.

Cooking Lager said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cooking Lager said...

A couple of things I don’t get. I suspect all or most of the commentators on this are CAMRA members. There is a hint of beard about it, no offence like. How does a democratic organisation end up doing something that obviously a fair portion of the membership don’t like?

Second off, CAMRA is concerned enough to set up groups to look into craft keg beer, a minority interest of beer geeks, yet seems unconcerned that the majority of alcohol is not consumed by beer geeks. In fact I’d say the majority of cask beer, indeed all beer, is consumed by regular people that go to work, look after the kids, clean the car on Sunday, like a nice bottle of Merlot from Tesco, like a bargain on the beer of choice in the supermarket as much as a bargain on anything, don’t beat the missus, don’t piss up the war memorial or puke in the gutter, and pop into the pub from time to time for a pint.

Regular people that are “overwhelmingly opposed” to cheap grog bans whenever asked.

http://menmedia.co.uk/manchestereveningnews/news/politics/s/1378292_poll_public_overwhelmingly_opposed_to_cheap_alcohol_ban_in_greater_manchester

2 things are looking likely in this debate. Firstly it will come in, in the form of higher taxes, by a government attempting to tackle a large national deficit. The goal will be higher revenue, there will be no guarantee it will favour the on trade, and the excuse will be tackling “problem alcohol”. Secondly a consumer organisation set up to promote, preserve & protect a beery element of our national heritage is sitting on the wrong side of public opinion.

Cooking Lager said...

MEN link here

Curmudgeon said...

I think on this issue a worrying disconnect has developed between the St Albans ivory tower and the actual membership on the ground (not to mention public opinion).

Most CAMRA members, to be honest, don't think very much about the wider political issues surrounding the industry, but I don't really detect much enthusiasm for this kind of selective alliance with the anti-drink lobby. Whatever else it may be, at the core of CAMRA is the idea of enjoying yourself with friends over a few beers.

I recall Tandleman putting forward a motion for the CAMRA AGM urging the organisation to do more to combat the anti-drink lobby, but eventually withdrawing it following a promise that the issue would be pursued by the "powers-that-be". Unfortunately, that just doesn't seem to have happened.

In this context, it's worth recalling these quotations from the famous Victorian philosopher of liberty, John Stuart Mill,

“Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price.”

And:

“To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition, and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable.”

Tandleman said...

Cookie:

I assume, since the CAMRA policy wasn't passed at an AGM, that it was decided, as is their right, between AGMs by the National Executive.

Now whether enough intellectual rigour was applied to this decision is another matter. What it needs is a motion to the AGM to reverse this policy. I'm not going this year - Torquay is too far and too awkward - or I would have submitted something.

I haven't seen this year's motions yet - not sure when they are out, so we'd better hope someone brings this up.

Cooking Lager said...

Ta, fella, Its up to you to change it Tand.

I gather every other beard that's commented is too bone idle.

What follows hubris is nemesis and all that.

Save CAMRA, from itself !

Rob Nicholson said...

It does seem rather bizarre that there are many comments against this policy (CAMRA for minimum pricing) here but very little (or rather nothing) from the people who are proposing it centrally. They are quiet online on too many subjects IMO including this one.

Fishter said...

They're too blooming quiet on too many things online.

Monty said...

Am I being thick here or does this article on the CAMRA Web site not say that CAMRA DO NOT support minimum unit pricing?
http://www.camra.org.uk/belowcost

Tandleman said...

Monty: I don't think you are being thick. I will write to Mike Bennner asking for a clarification.

Curmudgeon said...

But CAMRA have advocated a "notional" production cost which for beer they say equates to around 40p a unit, which effectively would be a minimum price.

In 2011, Mike Benner said:

“For any ban to have a meaningful impact it is vital that the cost of alcohol production is factored in, which for beer will produce a floor price of around 40p a unit – double what is being proposed,”

I'm sure there is plenty of beer being sold in the off-trade for less than 40p a unit which is fully covering its production costs.

The degree to which supermarkets are actually selling beer as a loss-leader is greatly exaggerated - they're not that stupid.

Tandleman said...

Monty: Reading this more closely and looking at the CAMRA submission to the Scottish Government, it seems we support minimum pricing, provided it takes into account the cost of retailing and production of alcohol.

I am still dropping a note to Mike.