Suzy Dean, 14 October 2010
The cheap cost of alcohol has been blamed for the culture of binge drinking in the UK. In Scotland, the introduction of a new minimum price per unit for alcohol was expected to ‘immediately save about 50 lives a year, cut hospital admissions by 1,200 a year and mean nearly 23,000 fewer days lost from work in the first year’, according to the Scottish National Party (1). Although the policy has not yet been passed, debate continues about the merits of placing a minimum cost on alcohol.
The Scottish government has been the first to propose a minimum price per unit of 45p in supermarkets, trebling the cost of some beverages. Local authorities and campaigning organisations such as Alcohol Concern recommend that liquor prices should rise by 150% to tackle binge drinking in the UK (2), while the British Medical Association claims that ‘there is strong scientific evidence that increasing price reduces rates of alcohol-related problems, particularly among young people.’ (1)
The political rhetoric surrounding excessive alcohol consumption stands in sharp contrast to official consumption figures. The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) have said that 2009 has seen the sharpest decline in alcohol consumption since 1948 based on figures from HM Revenue and Customs for the amount of alcohol sold by producers and importers into the UK market. Alcohol consumption in the UK is 13% lower than in 2004 and lower than the EU average (3). Moreover, the proportion of pupils (aged 11-15) who’ve never had an alcoholic drink has increased gradually in recent years, a study by the Office of National Statistics and the NHS Information Centre has found, with 48% of pupils reported having never tried alcohol in 2008, compared with 39% in 2003 (4).
So how can we account for the popularity of price hikes amongst politicians and local authorities as a catch all answer to what they perceive to be alcohol related disorder, when consumption has been steadily decreasing? Even if supporters of the minimum price could prove that the British public had some kind of drinking problem, why would increasing the cost of alcohol be the right response?
If we consider at the growing influence of ‘nudge theory’ within political circles, the tendency to explain social ills through the individual and widespread hostility towards lower class drinking, we can see that price fixing is symptomatic of the contempt politicians and other elites have for the public and their behaviour. It has little to do with tackling apparent alcohol related disorder.
Nudge theory has been growing in popularity amongst leading Conservative politicians since 2008. A term coined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Thaler and Sunstein argue the state can prompt people to behave a certain way by creating a ‘choice architecture’ which enables people to make the right decisions. The government’s ‘Nudge Unit’ has been tasked with public health issues including obesity and alcohol intake (5).
Yet the problem with nudge is evident in the decision to place a minimum cost per unit on alcohol. It skips the debate about whether it is the government’s business in the first place to prevent the public from adopting what are considered bad habits. Nudge assumes we are drinking too much and that a reduction in alcohol consumption is desirable. Based on the idea that government knows best, policy focuses on modifying the behaviour of the citizens without them knowing.
A knowingly undemocratic way of doing business, policy on alcohol pricing fits the nudge ethos because behaviour can be managed and the government can define and claim ‘positive outcomes’ come the election without ever having their assumptions and arguments churned through the democratic mill.
New Labour defined the start of an era in which it would be acceptable to shift responsibility for social improvements, for example, health provision and the narrowing of inequality away from themselves as political leaders who have the means to lead large scale solutions towards individual members of the public. The Tories have followed suit. Where it was once a given that ‘real change’ and improvement in services could only come with material betterment made possible with an increase in GDP, today, individual behaviour is treated as the key to overcoming shortages within national services.
Alcohol has subsequently been redefined from the adults’ drink of choice to a killer drug that has created a huge strain on the NHS, economy and security. Seen in these terms, alcohol pricing is wholly justified in the eyes of politicians; they can ease the strain on the NHS and police by increasing cost per unit, reducing alcohol consumption and by extension alcohol related incidents.
This however turns state provision on its head from being something that is provided to help people and improve standards of living to something that people need to maintain by changing their behaviour. Service provision has gone from being people centered to service centered. As such, arguments made by the SNP about how much money will be saved have political weight when perhaps they shouldn’t. An alternative solution to high NHS or policing costs would be to work out how UK PLC can make more money to meet the increase in demand. A minimum cost per unit of alcohol is lazy and in the long run unlikely to make up the saving necessary for the government to meet public demand for services.
The government have long recognised that the middle classes are the heaviest drinkers yet placing a minimum cost on the price of alcohol only penalises the less well off. This smacks more than a little of snobbery, particularly when the government have made a point of depicting the problem drinkers as the ‘yoof’ and those on lower incomes.
Remember the NHS adverts which showed teenagers going for a night out in reverse, where the young lad ends up covered in vomit in his bedroom, which he had smashed up by the end of the night? Or the ‘drinking causes you damage you can’t see’ ads which feature three middle aged cockney men in a pub, sipping their pints and unwittingly putting their lives in danger by ordering a third? The problem appears not to be with the Chablis sipping sort and we can see this in the way that policy is also developing.
Ten local authorities in Greater Manchester collectively requested that David Cameron allow them to introduce bylaws for an alcohol pricing minimum to tackle binge drinking in their local area (6). In other words, moves are being made to let the middle classes off the price hike altogether and just to penalise the less well off by legislating in their area only, in the name of delivering a ‘localist’ (without the local) solution. Cameron is sympathetic.
Of course, that ‘problem drinkers’ are the stereotypical chav or less well off is the silent mantra is everywhere. For instance,the back of a Lambrini bottle - the staple cheap drink for a girl’s night out - features a pregnant female figure with a line through it, whereas a fine bottle of malt will tend to feature a discreet 40% sign. That’s not to say the more middle class or discerning drinkers have been wholly let off. A recent study found that affluent teenagers were likely to drink more than those from poorer families (7) and the NHS have recently started to target the middle class wine drinkers, albeit in a less shrill fashion.
It is absurd to think that just because alcohol is cheap, people will buy more of it. People do not blindly respond to what’s on offer by purchasing goods that are low cost. To put it another way, supermarkets do not set the agenda for what people eat and drink. As Catherine Bennett argues:
‘This fitful interest in controlling intake and the fact that heavier alcohol consumption has been tolerated in the past suggest, to some, that the government and media are merely acting out another great British tradition: that of alcohol-inspired moral panics.’ (8)
Particularly true given that consumption is falling. What the minimum price per unit debate tells us is that the government and their health tsars believe that people are the problem, unworthy of intellectual discussion, instead deserving little more than a nudge - or shove - to mend their feckless behaviour. Nudge is about ‘the idea that governments can design environments that make it easier for people to choose what is best for themselves and society’ (5). It is actually upfront about its contempt for people to make decisions about the direction of society.
Elites have shifted the responsibility from themselves to the unruly public to fix shortages of cash for the NHS and policing, and have targeted the public with a huge array of patronising material to denormalise their drinking habits.
More attention needs to be drawn to the policy makers and their assumptions about the public - we should all question harder those who want to tell the rest of us how to behave.
Suzy Dean, freelance journalist, researcher and writer on democracy, multiculturalism and cities; co-founder, IoI Current Affairs Forum.
(1) Scottish government to tackle alcohol abuse with price hike, by Severin Carrell, Guardian, 2 September 2010
(2) Raise liquor prices by 150% to beat binge-drinking, says Alcohol Concern, by Jamie Doward and Rhys Jones, Guardian, 8 August, 2010
(3) Pubs cite record fall in alcohol drinking, Guardian, 3 September 2010
(4) English drinking less alcohol, official figures show, Owen Bowcott, Guardian, 26 May 2010
(5) David Cameron’s ‘nudge unit’ aims to improve economic behaviour”, Patrick Wintour, Guardian, 9 September 2010
(6) Cameron ‘very sympathetic’ to local alcohol pricing, James Tapsfield, Independent, 12 August 2010
(7) Affluent teenagers drink more, study shows , Rachel Williams, Guardian, 24 June 2010
(8) Our drink laws are driven by middle-class hypocrites, Catherine Bennett, Observer, 6 June 2010
"Just when Kant's formulation that 'the public exercise of reason should be free' had begun to seem so remote and exhausted, the Battle should reinforce one's faith in the enduring worth of dissent and of the free traffic in ideas"
Swapan Chakravorty, professor of english, Jadavpur University