There’s absolutely no denying that the UK has an alcohol problem. The rates of binge drinking are amongst the world’s highest. A far higher proportion of Brits are addicted to alcohol than almost anywhere else. The result is a huge strain on the NHS, higher fatalities due to drink driving, and in some cases higher rates of domestic violence. The problem is particularly bad amongst the middle aged and older generations, especially those who live alone.
In response, many British politicians have proposed a minimum price on alcohol, which will take effect in Scotland in May next year. The obvious case for it is that by raising prices, fewer people will drink regularly. Proponents of a price floor point to cigarettes, where raising taxes on tobacco has reduced smoking rates. A minimum price would also discourage young people from drinking by making it a less attractive proposition when people can buy alcohol legally for the first time.
It’s true that a minimum alcohol price will probably reduce alcoholism by a little bit. But I doubt it’ll be all that effective. If someone is addicted to alcohol, raising prices will likely mean alcoholics will cut spending on necessities, damaging their health. A price floor ignores the fact that many people who drink excessively are actually quite well off people who wouldn’t be affected. In practice, I suspect the main effect of minimum pricing would be to reduce the disposable income of the poor and the young, while doing little to reduce rates of addiction.
Britain’s alcohol problem is not caused by low prices. In most European countries, particularly in the south, alcohol is cheaper, and yet rates of alcoholism are lower. The exception to that is the former Soviet Union countries which have a particular problem with vodka addiction amongst men. But in countries like France and Spain, alcohol is cheap and yet consumed responsibly. This is because alcoholism is caused by a toxic drinking culture. In Britain, it is simply socially acceptable to get hopelessly drunk, even in supposedly respectable places like Oxford and Cambridge university. Most shockingly of all, the elite Bullingdon Club glorifies drunkenness. If the ultra-wealthy can abuse alcohol, then why not the rest of the population? For rates of alcohol abuse to come down, there needs to be a profound shift in social attitudes. Minimum alcohol pricing simply papers over the cracks.
I’m afraid I don’t believe reducing poverty rates will necessarily reduce rates of alcoholism by all that much. Partly because as I mentioned earlier, many of those who drink excessively are middle class. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-health/10096120/The-ladies-who-have-too-good-a-lunch.html) Also, there are some very poor parts of East London and Norfolk where alcoholism is very low, and also some relatively well off parts of West London and Northern England where alcoholism is very high (http://www.localhealth.org.uk/#z=374097,465581,443482,315655;l=en;i=t2.bingedrinking;v=map8.) Obviously we should all try to reduce poverty by as much as possible. But we will only solve our alcohol problem when we realise the issue is cultural, not economic.