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A minimum alcohol price is a slippery slope

    Earlier this month, Conservative MPs Philip Davies and Dr. Sarah Wollaston took part in the latest CPS online debate 'Is it right to introduce a minimum alcohol price to tackle alcohol-related problems?'. Here we reproduce Philip Davies' argument against the proposals. 

    The very principle of minimum pricing goes against all my beliefs as a libertarian and believer in individual freedom and responsibility. Undoubtedly, there are a small percentage of society who suffer from alcohol-related problems including binge drinking and anti-social behaviour. However, to punish the vast majority of responsible drinkers for the actions of a troublesome few by hiking up alcohol prices across the board is at worst completely unfair and at best, downright perverse.

    The people who would be most penalised by minimum pricing are those who are already on tight budgets, such as pensioners, people on fixed incomes or those in low-paid jobs. I simply cannot understand the logic, at a time of economic austerity, how anyone can justify imposing further artificial price rises, deliberately targeted at the very poorest in society.

    The Institute for Fiscal Studies produced a report on minimum pricing that found that poorer households, compared with richer households, on average pay less for a unit of off-sale alcohol. For example, households with an income of less than £10,000 a year pay 39.8p per unit, while those on a household income of more than £70,000 pay 49.3p per unit on average. As a result, a minimum price of 40p or 45p per unit would have a larger impact on poorer households and virtually no impact on richer ones.

    In addition, the process of setting a minimum price is predicated on the assumption that raising the price of alcohol will make those who misuse alcohol behave differently. However, that is an incredibly simplistic belief.

    In fact all of the evidence shows that alcohol pricing has little impact on the habits of heavy drinkers. It's surely obvious, that those who like to drink to excess are the least likely to be deterred from drinking by price rises. We know that thanks to above inflation increases in excise duty for several years, the UK already has some of the highest priced alcohol in Europe, and yet there is no evidence to support the notion that these high prices have deterred alcohol misuse. In fact it's the high tax/high price countries like Sweden and the UK that tend to have a problem with alcohol misuse whereas low tax/low price Spain and Italy do not.

    All of which suggests that minimum unit pricing wouldn't work to combat the real issues of binge drinking and alcohol misuse which we all agree is the problem, but is very likely to reduce the intake of responsible drinkers. If wine suddenly jumps from £5 to £10 a bottle then clearly some people will buy less. But this doesn't mean that alcohol misuse by an undeterred minority is going to be lowered.

    To date, in the UK overall consumption has fallen by 11% since 2004, but reported levels of alcohol harm continue to rise. Nevertheless, health professionals continue to push for the imposition of prices rises, despite this lack of evidence and despite the fact that a minimum unit price has never been successfully imposed on a national level anywhere in the world.

    So if blanket price increases are not the answer, what is? Other methods have had far more obvious success in tackling binge drinkers. We know from experience elsewhere that targeted interventions at problem drinkers have far more impact than taxation increases. So rather than thrashing out with an illiberal, anti-Government, nanny state approach, we should focus our efforts where they will make a difference. Rather than hitting everyone with a price increase, let's target those people that misuse alcohol, let's enforce existing laws about public drunkenness and punish those responsible for anti-social behaviour. Let's support schemes like Drinkaware and Community Alcohol Partnerships which seek to use education to tackle problems such as underage drinking. Surely it is better that we look to combat alcohol abuse at the cultural, psychological and behavioural root of the problem, rather than impose a blanket regressive price hike on the decent, hard working, law abiding majority for whom a pint of beer, a glass of wine, or a dram of whisky, is one of the few pleasures in their hard working week!

    Finally, I worry where this will end. Will the Government suggest later down the line that we should introduce minimum pricing of cream cakes, pizzas, chocolate, fish and chips or curry, because they are all bad for us if eaten to excess? This is a slippery slope, and certainly not one that I am prepared to support.

    View Dr. Sarah Wollaston's response to Philip and get involved in the debate yourself - Is it right to introduce a minimum alcohol price to tackle alcohol-related problems? 

    Philip Davies has been the Conservative MP for Shipley since 2005.

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