Minimum alcohol pricing won’t make people drink more responsibly

In a recent ruling, the British Supreme Court ruled that Scotland is indeed allowed to impose minimum alcohol pricing on its market. After a decade-long feud with producers, the Scots now intend to crack down on alcohol consumption. The legislation, which the Scottish Parliament passed in 2012, sets a minimum price of 50 pence per unit of alcohol, which would lift the lowest price of a bottle of whisky to £14.

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg had rules that Scotland would only be allowed to set minimum pricing if it were able to prove that the measure would increase public health. However, the Supreme Court’s conclusion on Wednesday was “Minimum pricing is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. It would stand to reason that the “proportionate means” part of the argument was actually backed up by science, but the opposite is the case: no evidence points the fact that minimum pricing would actually reduce the consumption of spirits.

Empirical evidence from other EU member states has shown that large-scale meddling in the food market easily backfires. This has been shown in the example of Denmark, which introduced a special fat tax on consumption goods, only to repeal the bill (with the same majority) 15 months later. What had happened? Not only was the tax an additional burden on people with low incomes, it also incentivised consumers to downgrade to cheaper products in the supermarket (while maintaining their consumptions of fats), leading to no impact on health and minor impact on consumption overall.

The same is bound to happen once this Scottish law comes into effect: while minimum prices tries to prevent consumers to pivot to lower-quality products, we need to realise that funds are fungible. Nothing prevents consumers to spend less money on healthy food in order to afford their consumption of liquor. History, most notably the prohibition age in the United States, has shown that people are very difficult keep away from alcohol, no matter what restrictive measures the government puts in place.

Not only is minimum pricing problematic for consumers overall; it is downright unfair to low-income households, who will have to make different choices in expenditures in order to afford their favourite spirits. It can hardly be the intention of the Scottish government to incentivise parents to spend less money on their children or healthy food, just because they don’t want to pass on the pleasure of having a drink on the weekend.

Even more concerning of an issue could be a new rise in black market alcohol sales, which are known to bring considerable health hazards to the table. As this regressive measure hits low incomes the hardest, what makes it unlikely at this point that cities like Glashow and Edinburgh will see a massive rise in alcohol dealers, which would add to the already existing black market presence for drugs?

Lifestyle regulations should take into account that consumers are often unwilling to see themselves stripped off the right to enjoy certain products. Alcohol is certainly a part of this equation. Responsible consumption of alcoholic beverages is a matter of parental oversight and educational services. Influencing the pricing of these products through clearly regressive policies won’t people drink more responsibly, and can have serious ramifications.

This article first appeared in The Conservative Online.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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