Time for us to admit that the public health defence of prohibition has failed. The smoking ban has not reduced smoking, merely displaced it. Every year brings new initiatives and finger-wagging on alcohol, coupled with a rise in alcohol-related health and crime problems. And the UK’s war on drugs couldn’t stop the ruinous ketamine craze from tearing through England’s cities.
Now the government plans to bring in minimum unit pricing. Home Secretary Theresa May said that ‘if you need to deal with problems that are caused by excessive consumption of alcohol, what you have to address is the price of it.’ But high prices are no deterrent. A classic post on Harry’s Place lays out the economics of this. Most luxury goods are elastic products, which means if the price is raised high enough then people will stop buying them. However, there are a few inelastic products, which people will continue to buy no matter how high the price is jacked up. As Libby says:
But, as in physics, there is always an effect. There has to be one. Unfortunately it is not the effect the stupid policy makers hoped for. The effect of the increase in cost is transferred to more ‘elastic’ goods. Frequently these are the goods that are good for us… people are more likely to buy less baby formula and default on their electricity bill than to buy fewer crates of lager. The most desperate will turn to crime.
Essentially, all a minimum pricing policy will do is to make people who can handle their drink pay for those who can’t. That, by the way, is all it comes down to with drink and drugs. You can either handle it or you can’t, and addiction is not a disease, but a choice – to the extent to which we can make pure and free choices.
I can’t deny there are plenty of people out there who should never drink at all. They are the people who jam police holding cells and A + E triage units, they are the people who walk fifteen abreast in Ben Sherman pastel shirts, shouting abuse and propositions, on the way from one soulless purpose-built barn to another; they are the people who appear in Daily Mail double page spreads and freeview documentaries, who cannot have a good night without ruining someone else’s. People can get into horrendous trouble through drinking, they can end up in prison or dead, the lucky ones end up in AA and I know people who have.
But how much of this really is booze? If a man strangles his wife while drunk, he’s probably a bad man who could as easily do it sober. If you keep cutting yourself while drunk, that’s a problem within yourself that you must address. It will be a problem drunk or sober, although clearly drink doesn’t help. The unit price policy will not arrest any of this, it will simply irritate and alienate the majority of people who are just trying to get on with their lives.
Because this is indiscriminate and across the board. Elitist conniptions about drink in general is something that flares up at regular intervals. Alastair Campbell has warned that ‘we are kidding ourselves if we think alcohol abuse is a problem for a small minority… [people are] bombarded with a tsunami of marketing, sitting on a boozequake, and unless we face up to it, we will pay a far heavier price than a rise on supermarket beer, wine and spirits.’ Campbell made a documentary called ‘Britain’s Hidden Alcoholics’ to support his claim that ‘the real problem drinkers in Britain are the professional middle classes.’ One bourgeois drinker told Campbell this:
I think people’s perception of what is an alcoholic is interesting because actually, do you know what, it is not the guy with the brown paper bag and the strong cider or cheap vodka. It can be two glasses a night if that is what you need. I challenge anybody I know to stop for a month, to go the same places, do the same things, interact with the same people and just remove the alcohol from the equation and see how they feel.
Fine. Take those two glasses away. And let’s ban advertising because we’re too stupid to handle it. Why should anyone be able to alter their brain chemistry or experience a sense of well-being that does not derive from abstemious self-satisfaction?
We generally get arguments here about the decline of the British pub, hammered by the smoking ban, supermarket undercuts and monopoly pubcos. May says she wants to target the ‘cheap end’ of the market (ie the poor) who frontload at home on store drink before hitting the town. The minimum unit price may level the competition a little, but it is ultimately a superficial policy which will do little to arrest the deep problems with the pub trade and the impact this has on communities – not least that, as Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi put it, we live in a sick society that rejects pleasure.
The government has a right to pass these laws, the prohibionists have a right to send out press releases and pro forma emails, but come on, let’s be honest about what is being demanded here. If you don’t like vulgar working class people drinking White Lightning in their gardens, then say so. If the idea of people having a good time makes you nervous, then say so. If you want to bring in a UK Volstead Act then let’s have that argument. Call it a vice tax, a sin tax, whatever. Just don’t pretend this is about trying to improve people’s lives.
I have written about this subject before, probably too often, but there has been a real assault on people’s leisure and choices since 2007 and things have gone too far. It’s time we heard a little less from the prohibitionists and a little more from people willing to speak up for the pleasures of the evening and the sweet delerium of the senses.