Alcohol Pricing

The new coalition government brings fresh ideas and ways of tackling age old problems. The British culture of binge and underage drinking only appears to be getting worse if media reports and latest statistics are true. There is mounting pressure to make changes which will address this problem area.

One of the new bills announced by the coalition government is the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. This provides stronger powers to tackle alcohol fuelled crime, and in particular tries to address the initial problem of young people being able to get hold of too much alcohol, too cheaply, too easily. The proposals promise to overhaul the current Licensing Act by doubling the maximum fine imposed on those selling alcohol to underage children, giving powers to enforcers to shut down bars that persistently sell alcohol to youngsters, and banning the sale of alcohol below cost price. All issues which will have a direct impact on the day to day work of Trading Standards Officers.

It is the proposed pricing plans which have sparked most debate. There has already been widespread support for the proposals, but some supermarkets and health organisations want the government to go further, calling for an actual minimum price per unit for alcohol. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) along with doctors and other health professionals believe this is what’s needed to tackle the problem, and they have been openly supported by Tesco and Morrisons. Although no-one has been bold enough to suggest what the minimum price should be, they all believe this is the best way of tackling the abuse of alcohol.

But what about the majority of people who enjoy a drink and can deal with the product sensibly? Whilst there appears to be growing support for a minimum price, the coalition government have resisted going this far with their proposals, and other supermarket giants, namely Asda and Marks and Spencers, have condemned the call for a minimum price. Their belief is that a minimum price will only serve to punish loyal customers who know how to drink sensibly and already pay large grocery bills. The problem with alcohol is a cultural one and not reliant solely on price.

Certainly the argument that people have a right to drink is a strong one, perhaps even more compelling than the ‘right to smoke’, due to the reported health benefits of drinking alcohol, in moderation, (eg. red wine). There is also an assumption that the problem lies with only young drinkers, buying large amounts of cheap booze, and passing out on street corners. It is easy to forget about the ‘middle class’ drinker who is old enough to purchase alcohol, appears to do so sensibly, yet drinks far too much on a regular basis with steady damage to their health.

However, it is certainly young people, and particularly the underage that are of concern for Trading Standards Officers. So how do we teach young people to drink sensibly? Many people believe the ‘traditional pub’ has a key role to play in educating people about alcohol. The modern day trendy bars and clubs throw you in at the deep end, or alienate some people altogether as they feel uncomfortable in those surroundings. Some would argue that the smoking ban has ensured the decline of the local pub, and as such the decline of such establishments which could help youngsters learn how to consume alcohol sensibly and in moderation.

In Scotland, there have already been stricter licensing rules imposed. Stores must have designated aisles for alcohol and pubs can no longer operate ‘happy hours’. Drinks promotions are closely scrutinised for any irresponsible features, and great emphasis is placed on trying to stop underage sales. The Scottish Government is also committed to introducing minimum pricing which has been included in the Alcohol Bill, currently being met by some opposition from members of the Scottish Parliament. Perhaps the coalition government is waiting to see what the outcome is before they decide whether to follow this route, as with the smoking ban which was introduced first in Scotland.

Minimum pricing for alcohol, and associated issues, is certainly proving to be a controversial topic for the new government to tackle.

Alison Ramsden
June 2010

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