Poverty, Social commentary

“Hard cases make bad law” – 3 principles for arguing about alcohol pricing

The government has announced its plan to set a minimum price of 45p per unit for alcohol. This will mainly affect strong beer, cheap wine and spirit bottles, but not pubs.  This is a big change and they’ll be a swirling vat of arguments over the next few weeks, so here’s three principles to bear in mind amongst the hullaballoo.

1.       Hard cases make bad law

“Higher prices won’t do anything!” people say. “If someone wants to drink they’ll find a way – look at prohibition, gin lane, meths drinkers.”  Yes, there will be some people who go to any extreme to get  slaughtered however much you charge, but minimum pricing isn’t aimed at them. Legal and regulatory changes should be aimed at the majority in the centre. For most people, if you charge more for booze they won’t resort to stealing or start smoking heroin.

They’ll  drink less.

Alcohol abuse isn’t a fringe problem in this country – it’s mainstream.

When they taxed gin in the 18th century some people disappeared down Gin lane and bought it illegally, but most people switched to weak beer or tea and the result was less fights and less drunken wife beating.

Lawyers have an adage – ‘hard cases make bad law’ and if you hear people opposing minimum pricing on the basis of extreme examples their argument is as weak as ginger beer.

2.       Taxation should help reflect real cost

One of the purposes of taxation is to reflect the real cost of that activity to society. Taxing petrol, carbon emissions or landfill shows the cost of clearing up the mess caused by climate change. We tax cigarettes to reflect the cost to the NHS.

Alcohol pricing should reflect the hundreds of millions of pounds spent each years to police town centres at the weekends, staff A&Es and the lost working hours of women whose self esteem has hit rock bottom after years of drunken domestic abuse.

Alcohol has a major economic (never mind social) cost.  The price of a six pack should reflect that.

3.       Price doesn’t change a culture on its own, but it helps

“Putting the price up isn’t the answer” the argument goes “we need to change the culture”. Minimum pricing won’t get to the root causes of why people need drink excessively to escape or be able to let their hair down.

But it will help.

Merely having the national discussion now forces people to start thinking about our national drinking habits.

We all know that we should carshare and cycle more, but it took the sharp increase in fuel costs (and Wiggo!) to get significantly numbers of us to change our habits.  It doesn’t always mean we like it (who likes to change?) but it does have an effect.

Law making and regulation aren’t separate from our culture and thinking – they are both affect and are affected by it.  Minimum pricing won’t solve everything for everyone, but a 45p per unit price will reflect the real cost of drinking and take our national culture in the right direction.

3 thoughts on ““Hard cases make bad law” – 3 principles for arguing about alcohol pricing”

  1. Thanks Jon for this. I think the charity Thames Reach have done some brilliant work on this issue – including taking Heineken round one of their homeless hostels. This led them to stop producing ‘White Lightening’ one the ‘ciders that has never seen an apple’ which has caused huge amounts of damage to vulnerable people.

    See Thames Reach’s statement on the government’s pricing proposals here – http://www.thamesreach.org.uk/news-and-views/thames-reach-statement-on-minimum-pricing-2/?Thames%20Reach%20statement%20on%20minimum%20pricing


  2. We definitely have a problem with alcohol in this country, the evidence is stark. I do wonder though whether minimum pricing will actually achieve anything. It may price some people out of the levels they previously consumed in honesty the minimum pricing won’t be steep enough to achieve the results needed to price the majority out of binge drinking.

    I do agree that we need to prevent alcohol being used as a loss-leader product by retailers, but minimum pricing will not deliver the solution.

    The problem for the majority is that consuming alcohol is an escape, it is means to relax in the a world which has become over complicated and stressful. When someone gets drunk there is a story to be told an ‘adventure’ or an embarrassing story, there is a sense of a shared experience and openness in a society that is still quite socially cautious.

    The alcohol is definitely a symptom but the cause is deeper. Minimum pricing i think will help reduce the levels but not by enough.



    1. Hi Dean,
      I agree that minimum pricing isn’t enough and it’s only piece in the jigsaw. However, I do think that it is worth doing and can signal and help trigger a cultural shift. You’re completely right about drinking to escape and I think that’s where churches need to lead by living out the ‘Good News of Great Joy’ showing that there is another alternative to alcoholic escape


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