Don't fall for minimum unit pricing case

on 11 August, 2017

Last week columnist Guy Woodward launched a quite extraordinary rant in our sister title, Harpers, in which he railed against the Scotch Whisky Association and argued in favour of minimum unit pricing. He called the SWA “shabby” for fighting MUP and threw his weight behind the anti-alcohol lobby. The basis for his argument was a press release put out by the neo-prohibitionist brigade and he bought its claims hook, line and sinker, without holding them up to the scrutiny they deserve.

The anti-alcohol lobby’s mission is to reduce the affordability, availability and advertising of alcohol in a bid to kill off our industry. They peddle junk science and make claims that quickly fall apart like a house of cards. They are afraid to get their hands dirty and work with the unfortunate minority that are in crisis, so instead they promote blanket measures for the entire population that would only penalise responsible drinkers, retailers and producers and fail to address the issue they are targeting. They are arguing for a minimum unit price of 50p, claiming it will save money and save lives. It won’t.

MUP is a blunt mechanism that slaps a tax on the poor and will not make a difference to people with alcohol dependency problems. If they want a drink, they will get it, regardless of the price. They could cut back on other outgoings, steal, brew moonshine or turn to drugs, but they will get their fix because they are addicts. The only way to treat them is to get them into rehab and turn their lives around. It is a messy process, but it is vital. Meanwhile, education around the pitfalls of drinking to excess needs to be improved. There are people in the UK drinking far too much and the industry cannot ignore that. But MUP is not the answer and the SWA is right to fight it. There is nothing shabby about its behaviour. MUP is also the thin end of the wedge. A 50p MUP would actually benefit some of our readers, but supporting it is misguided. A 50p per unit rate would just be the start. It wouldn’t take long for the anti-alcohol groups to lobby for it to go up to £1 and then £2 and so on, and soon the cheapest bottle of wine available would be £20 and everyone would notice.

Woodward’s treatise neglects to mention that drinking rates are consistently falling in the UK, despite the population increasing, and does not even touch upon the horrendously flawed Sheffield University model forming the basis of the MUP case, which uses unrealistic assumptions about price elasticity to inflate the positive effect.

If the article were penned by the Alcohol Health Alliance it would be understandable as it pushes this message on a regular basis. But the fact that it comes from a respected trade commentator is worrying. If MUP goes through it would represent a victory for those that seek to ruin our industry, which supports hundreds of thousands of jobs, provides pleasure for millions and is enjoyed responsibly by the overwhelming majority.

It would embolden the AHA and the Institute for Alcohol Studies and fuel the anti-alcohol lobby’s bid to see alcohol advertising outlawed, plain packaging on beers, wines and spirits, skyrocketing duty, reduced licensing hours and Chief Medical Officer guidelines stating that no level of alcohol consumption is safe. The industry should be calling these types out on their flawed research rather than swallowing it and using it to argue for measures that would eventually penalise us all and turn our wonderful trade into a sunset industry.

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