(But it may cost you 40p a unit from 2015)
Minimum Pricing for alcohol looks like the most contentious social marketing issue to emerge in recent years. While at face value the case for minimum pricing might seem fairly straightforward, scratching the surface reveals a far more complex set of issues which could throw up real challenges for the plan. Account Director and healthcare and social marketing specialist Emily-Jane Hadley takes a look behind the headlines and comes up with some potentially controversial conclusions.
The introduction of minimum pricing of alcohol in England has the potential to be one of the most contentious pieces of social engineering ever undertaken in Britain if it does eventually pass onto the statute books.
A controversial view, possibly? But if you look at the problem that lurks behind the populist headlines, it is actually pretty easy to come up with some strong supporting evidence to underpin this somewhat contentious viewpoint.
Over the past few years the government has significantly changed its approach to addressing health and social problems which has lead to an explosion in social marketing techniques. Gone are hectoring tones of ‘x is bad for you’ and ‘stop doing this or you’re going to die’ and in have come much more subtle yet effective techniques that gently persuade us to change our behaviours. So it is interesting that the government seems to have dropped all of these and gone back to the big stick of legislation to address the alcohol issue.
Some may argue that legislators are being driven by the success of the smoking ban in public places and how that helped reduce smoking prevalence.
But the motivations and behaviours sitting behind that are very different from a minimum pricing approach for alcohol. For starters a lot more people drink than smoke and a large proportion of people drink sensibly.
For seconds, we’ve been educated for years that smoking damages your health so a ban on smoking in public places was obvious and logical. But drinking is different on so many levels.
Britain – The Binger of Europe
Let’s not deny it, Britain has a problem and anyone who has ventured out in the UK’s cities of a weekend could conclude pretty quickly that binge and anti-social drinking are big issues. And there are medical and government experts aplenty to back this view up. According to the Health Secretary, alcohol abuse costs the NHS around £2.7 billion every year.
That said, a much less publicised fact is that UK alcohol consumption per head of population is in long term and significant decline. If you look at ONS data you’ll see the amount drunk by the average British adult has fallen every year since 2002.
With some groups the reduction is substantial. If you take men aged 16-24, arguably the group who are most often portrayed as the perpetrators of binge drinking, the statistics are even more surprising. In 1999 this group was averaging 26 units a week.
Ten years later in 2009 this had fallen to 15 units according to the ONS. So is the overall societal problem as big as government and healthcare professionals are saying?
The short answer to anyone hitting the town on a Saturday night is probably yes. But if as a society we are drinking less than we used to, why is thee binge drinking problem now bigger than it ever appears to have been?
As an interesting aside, it is worth looking to certain countries in Europe for a comparison. Southern and Mediterranean Europe are often cited as models of socially responsible drinking. Alcohol goes hand in hand with food and as such Southern Europe doesn’t have the same binge drinking problems as the UK. This is even more interesting if you consider that alcohol in Southern Europe can often be found much cheaper than in the UK.
However if you venture into Northern Europe the picture is somewhat different. In certain Scandinavian countries, alcohol is significantly more expensive than in the UK. In Sweden sale of alcohol is a government regulated monopoly in the take home trade. Do high prices and tight control of distribution mean they don’t have problems? The answer for the UK government, sadly, is that despite this level of regulation, binge drinking is still a problem in certain parts of Scandinavia.
Coming back to the UK….
To suggest the focal point of the problem is excessive drinking and violence in public would be a mistake. It is certainly the most obvious visual manifestation of the problem, but it is just one element of the problem.
Stop Wining It Might save your Life
Equally concerning for the government is the long term problem quietly ticking away in the background in the shape of middle class Britain and its love of wine. This group aren’t fighting in the streets or vomiting in bars, but they are storing up a massive hidden health problem for the future.
If you accept Britain’s binge problem exists on two levels, how would a minimum price of 40p a unit actually go towards changing the behaviour of both of these groups, if at all?
Minimum Pricing Unlikely To Change Behaviour in Bars
First let’s look at weekends in bars and streets throughout the land. The brutal reality is that a minimum unit price of 40p per unit will do next to nothing to change the way we drink in bars and the reason for that is simple.
The vast majority of alcohol on sale in bars is significantly more expensive than 40p a unit simply because of the on-costs associated with running a bar, so 40p a unit isn’t even going to make a dent in changing our behaviour once we get to a bar. Given the clamp down on irresponsible promotions over the past few years, the idea of people getting wasted in happy hours is increasingly an urban myth. So minimum pricing is unlikely to change our behaviour once we’re in bar. Where it may have an impact is in reducing what the social scientists are terming “pre-loading”.
Pre-load, Aim, Fire
Pre-loading is where consumers drink before they go out and are able to benefit from supermarket prices and promotions. The net effect of this is by the time these consumers hit the streets they’ve almost certainly exceeded the recommended daily intake and many will already be in a pretty poor way. So at face value, minimum pricing could have an impact in helping to reduce pre-loading which could reduce the problem being stored up for when these consumers finally get to the bar. It sounds like a good idea……but…..
It all depends what they are drinking when they’re pre-loading. If their tipple of choice is cheap alcohol or a product on price promotion, then minimum pricing will potentially have an impact on behaviours. But it is not the universal panacea some experts are saying it is, because it all depends on what people are pre-loading on and whether their drink of pre-loading choice already falls above the minimum price threshold.
Hitting The Middle Class Tipplers
Which brings us neatly onto the middle class tipplers. The bottle-of-wine-a-night at home brigade aren’t fighting or vomiting in public, but are sure as hell damaging themselves and in the process storing up one massive health bill for the future. If you accept the research and urban myth that wine accounts for a significant chunk of this excessive consumption in a home environment, what impact would minimum pricing have on wine sales? Answer, unless it is on a significant price promotion, not that much because a lot of wine is already priced above the proposed 40p per unit.
So when you examine the facts you start to realise that minimum pricing is far from being the magic bullet that could help us beat our binge drinking addiction. Sadly there is no panacea and the reality is addressing this issue is far more complex and will require all parties to work much more closely together and look at an educational approach rather than all stick and no carrot. Kids at school get education on drugs and sex, but how much emphasis is put on responsible consumption of alcohol? That sounds like an idea worth drinking to.