Is there a scientific relationship between the price of booze and its consumption? I ask because during a radio discussion on the Scottish Government's proposals to introduce a minimum price for booze, an expert insisted there was.
This intrigued me, as I thought the picture was far more mixed than he was admitting. Certainly there is some support for his view, such as this one which highlights that there is indeed a reduction of consumption when the price goes up.
But that only relates to overall consumption. This study suggests that increasing the price of booze will have little impact on binge drinking. This one, meanwhile, suggests there is a gender difference between men and women, with men being far less affected by price changes in terms of their binge drinking than women are, although for both the demand for booze is relatively inelastic. It should be noted that the study is of college students only.
Let us assume that all three studies are accurate. What conclusions can we draw? Well, the most obvious one has to be that raising the price of booze will reduce overall consumption of alcohol - but mainly for moderate drinkers and women. Male binge drinkers are less likely to respond to price signals.
Indeed, the evidence that price does little to affect binge drinking is quite significant. As the ever-reliable Wikipedia notes, there is a tradition of binge drinking in Scandinavian countries, despite the historically high prices and restricted availability of alcohol. In southern Europe, by contrast, binge drinking is much less common, despite the relative cheapness of alcohol.
That's why today's proposals from the Scottish Government are largely irrelevant to the issue of tackling Scotland's drinking culture. Yes, the introduction of minimum prices will certainly have an effect on consumption, but only at the margins. And it's unlikely to do anything to tackle the uncomfortable fact that too many people in our society drink to get drunk. Until people learn how to drink responsibly, laws on booze are not going to make much difference. And we are currently a long, long way from that.
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