Who will drink less when minimum pricing for alcohol is introduced?
The spectre of young people bingeing on cheap supermarket booze before setting out on evening revels in pubs and clubs has been a significant factor that has encouraged our legislators to introduce a minimum price for a unit of alcohol in this country. Will the revellers drink less as a consequence? And will disorderly conduct diminish as a consequence? We shall see.
In any event, we may ask the more general question, does pricing affect consumption? Well, common-sense, as well as the research consensus, suggests that it does. However experience shows that while taxation on drink may keep a lid on overall consumption of alcohol, it is also a comfortably reliable source of revenue for governments. There is general acknowledgement of the fact that consumption of alcohol is never likely seriously to diminish in those countries where access is taken for granted. Indeed, in Britain the hearty enjoyment of drinking is acknowledged to be a centuries old cultural given, and one that we seem to be pretty well proud of.
A recent archival Canadian study in British Columbia (1) looked at overall consumption of packaged alcohol products in relation to changes over time in their minimum price for a standard unit of alcohol. The study confirmed that increasing the minimum unit price of a category of drinks e.g spirits, may substantially reduce reduce consumption of drinking within that category. However, the figures suggested that this was offset by people switching to other categories of drink, and possibly offset by greater consumption of drink that was not included in the study, for example draught products, home brewed, black market and illegally purchased products and merchandise. The effect of across the board increases of 10% in the minimum unit price on overall consumption alcoholic drinks was relatively modest, apparently yielding a statistically significant reduction in formal sales of between 3% and 4%.
The results of this study have been welcomed by supporters of minimum pricing in this country (2). My view is that before any valuable conclusions can be drawn we need to know something about how it is that these reductions in recorded sales came about. Who drinks less? Young people out on the town? Pensioners at home? Bankers? Single mums? “Hard-working” low and middle-income families? Occasional drinkers? Heavy drinkers? Alcoholics? More pertinent still, are these reductions associated with decreases in alcohol-related admissions to hospital or rehabilitation, criminal behaviour, or days off work, and the like?
Of course there are limitations of statistically based analyses of aggregate data, and to the possibilities of changing behaviour by fiscal legislation. And it is not helpful merely to trot out the cliché that we must somehow “change the culture” of excessive drinking, without being prepared to say how that may be accomplished. Advocates of Positive Psychology (3) suggest that “positive education” leading to formation of constructive characteristics in young people is now a feasible objective. Starting in the schools will not yield immediate changes in culture, but it may offer better hope of change in the longer term.
Professor Geoffrey Stephenson