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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

December 16,  2011



Pricing us out of an alcohol problem?

It must be that time of year. We’re getting deluged with alcohol-related stories and studies. There really ought to be a recommended limit for consuming this kind of stuff. As someone who bangs on about booze all year round I’m weary of the seasonal obsessives. (Same goes for seasonal drinkers, actually. Beer is for life, not just for Christmas.)

In summary the message is: celebrate, but oo-er don’t fall onto the slippery slope of alcohol-related disease and disorder. Various commentators have also taken the opportunity to expand into the debates around wider alcohol policy, in particular pricing. Here, despite the headline, is one of the more measured contributions.

State action, concludes Andrew M Brown, can and does affect the way we drink, citing the Scottish ban on multi-buy deals in supermarkets which appear to have accelerated falling wine sales north of the border.

Sensibly, he doesn’t commit himself on whether “serious alcoholics” (as opposed to the flippant ones) will reduce their drinking in response to a price rise. This has become a key question. Indeed, the pre-Christmas supermarket price wars seem to have given those arguing for minimum pricing fresh energy.

I have it on good authority, though, that minimum pricing won’t affect the “serious alcoholic”. The good authority is Dr John Holmes, a member of the Sheffield University team that has rather cornered the market on providing positive evidence of the impact of minimum pricing. Or rather models of what might happen.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, at a Westminster Forum conference a few weeks back Dr Holmes, after making the well-rehearsed argument that minimum pricing will disproportionately hit heavy drinkers, was asked whether heavy drinkers included dependant drinkers, alcoholics. And he said no.

It makes sense, but it isn’t what we’ve been led to assume. It means that if pricing is having an impact it’s on a broader layer of the population who like a drink but are short of cash – a cohort in fast growth.

And this isn’t just about the marginal effects of minimum pricing. There is a lobby emerging for higher alcohol taxation as a better alternative, including from as influential a body as the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

There might be dangers in making drink too cheap, but there are dangers, too, in making it too expensive. Only this morning, two stories caught my eye. The first was from India where people too poor to afford branded alcohol made their own – and it killed more than 100 of them.

The second was from Essex, a warning about fake vodka.

It’s coming closer to home. Merry Christmas.

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