Minimum pricing, maximum snobbery

Posted on June 7, 2016

The Court of Session in Edinburgh will today hear a fresh round of legal arguments about the Scottish government's plan to introduce a minimum price for booze of 50 pence per unit of alcohol. The Scottish Parliament passed legislation to enable the introduction of minimum pricing back in 2012, but the measure has been stuck in the courts ever since.

In December 2015, the European Court of Justice ruled that minimum pricing may be in breach of EU law, but passed the final decision back to domestic courts, saying: 'The Court of Justice considers that the effect of the Scottish legislation is significantly to restrict the market, and this might be avoided by the introduction of a tax measure designed to increase the price of alcohol instead of a measure imposing a minimum price per unit of alcohol.' In other words, the ECJ has no issue with making alcohol more expensive, but it should be done via taxation rather than by the government setting minimum prices.

The outcome of the case could have a major bearing on the idea of minimum pricing being extended to other jurisdictions around Europe. David Cameron has previously expressed support for the idea and the Irish government is pushing forward with sweeping legislation on alcohol that includes minimum pricing along with detailed labelling and advertising bans.

But what are the merits of minimum pricing? The claim is that if prices go up, everyone will cut their consumption, including the heaviest drinkers who face the biggest risks to their health from drinking. This is absurd. At the levels deemed politically acceptable at the moment - 50 pence per unit in Scotland, with 45 pence per unit previously suggested in England - the effect would be negligible. Every drinker, regardless of whether or not they had a drink problem, would face the possibility of paying more. Poorer drinkers, the ones likeliest to buy the cheapest booze, would find the cost of a wee tipple going up and eating into their small and precious disposable income. But the impact on consumption would be small - and the impact on health even smaller.

The aim here is to established the principle of minimum pricing and allow governments the freedom to bump up that minimum price later to levels that would have a serious impact on cost. At 70 pence per unit - as suggested by researchers at Sheffield University - the cost of a bottle of wine would be at least £7. No more cheap plonk. This will be an irritation to those who are well-off, but won't prevent them from buying a bottle anyway. But for those on low incomes, it will mean making choices between drinking, eating and heating their homes - or whether to get their booze on the black market instead.

The aim is to stop poor people drinking. Minimum pricing will have little or no impact on the consumption levels of well-off boozers. The paternalists in Holyrood believe that they should decide how much we drink, that they know what is best for us. Like the true snobs that they are, they look down on the choices of others. Minimum pricing means everyone paying more for alcohol in return for limiting the choices of the least well-off. Whatever the courts finally decide, minimum pricing is a terrible idea.