Monday, 25 February 2008

A sober debate on booze culture

Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill wants to push up taxes on booze to stop the problems caused by binge drinking. He claims that a 10% rise in the price of booze would lead to a 10% reduction in alcohol consumption.

But there is room for doubt as to whether such a crude relationship exists between price and consumption, and whether that would make much of a dent in the problems caused by binge drinking. There would also be effects on other parts of the economy, in particular some smaller retailers who might well be hit by such a move.

MacAskill ought to know from his own experience that problems associated with boozing too much are not just a matter of the cheapness of drink. After all, he was famously arrested for drunkenness before the England v Scotland Euro 2000 play-off game at Wembley. Did he get drunk that day because the booze was too cheap? I doubt it. It was probably more to do with the occasion and wanting to feel good, but taking things just a little too far.

But, leaving this aside, is there a straightforward relationship between the price of booze, consumption and the problems caused by excessive drinking? Not really. Although it is widely believed that alcohol has rarely been as cheap in real terms or as available as it is today (possibly a dubious assumption if you look at things in a historical context), yet overall alcohol consumption has actually fallen.

Despite this fall, it would be exceptionally difficult to argue that problems associated with boozing have dropped. You only need to go out into UK cities any night of the week to see the anti-social behaviour caused by drunken louts, while health problems associated with boozing are increasing. The problem is not so much the overall level of alcohol consumption as the pattern in which some people drink. And that is a cultural issue, as despite higher overall levels of alcohol consumption in countries such as France, they have fewer problems with drink-related anti-social behaviour.

But let us assume for a moment that MacAskill is right and a rise in taxation is the way to sort out problems associated with booze. What other effects might that have? Well, for a start I'd expect an increase in thefts of booze and also an impact on retailers, especially smaller ones who might not be as able as supermarkets to absorb the drop in revenue created by the fall in consumption. Smaller brewers might also be hit. Another possibility is more serious, that of people distilling all sorts of spirits themselves, as happened in Russia in the early 1990s when the economic problems there made vodka far less affordable for most people. The result was a rise in home distilling, often with lethal consequences.

Now, I enjoy having a drink, particularly real ale and decent wine, but I rarely drink to excess. Most people in Scotland, and indeed the UK, are the same and generally have a responsible attitude to booze most of the time. But it is the irresponsible drinkers who cause most problems. I doubt very much whether increasing taxation for everyone who drinks is going to make much difference to the problems associated with excessive drinking. I don't think my consumption would alter that much, and I doubt whether that many binge drinkers are influenced mainly by price. Most drink because they want to get drunk and to hell with the cost.

Rather than just slapping on additional taxes (which MacAskill can't do anyway, as it is a power reserved to Westminster) and thinking that will solve the problem, the Scottish Government should be thinking seriously about why so many people in Scotland feel the need to get out their heads so often. It is a cultural issue, not an economic one. At best, taxation can make only a marginal difference to the problem. At worst, it is irrelevant.


Lee Griffin said...

Great post :)

John B said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly about falling net booze consumption and the pointlessness of taxation in tackling drunkenness.

I'm less sure about your view that drunken loutery is a terrible new problem that needs sorting out, rather than something which has always been with us, will always be with us, and is probably best viewed as a 'not terribly harmful if mildly irritating for those of us who're trying to sleep' part of British culture...

Bernard Salmon said...

John, I certainly don't say that drunken loutery is a new problem, merely that it is increasing.

Paul said...

Binge drinking is a social problem - not something that taxation is can sort. Yes supermarket drink is too cheap and it might encourage some to drink more but it's an incidental rather than the main reason.

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