The price of some supermarket alcohol would rise under the measure

The price of some supermarket alcohol would rise under the measure

There were few surprises in UK Prime Minister David Cameron's announcement yesterday of a consultation that may end in a GBP0.45 minimum unit price for alcohol. 

In fact, Britain's notoriously belligerent tabloid newspapers had already weighed into the debate when they got wind of the consultation plans a few days before. “PM defies Cabinet as cheapo booze gets Cammered,” went The Sun's headline as it set out its stall in defiance of Cameron's plan, which seemed to lack support even from his own party.

“Furious ministers claim it will clobber responsible drinkers and do nothing to halt late-night mayhem in city centres,” The Sun continued, pointing out that Home Secretary Theresa May and chancellor George Osborne are also “cool” on the idea.

The broadsheets came at the proposals in a slightly more balanced fashion, with the Telegraph running a video from Alcohol Concern, which said that if a minimum unit price of 50p were set, 3,000 lives could be saved every year. 

Elsewhere, however, these statistics were being called into question. In a blog for the Spectator magazine, Adam Smith Institute fellow Chris Snowden said the method used by the University of Sheffield to get those numbers was flawed, and he asked: “Given the decidedly mixed record of minimum alcohol pricing around the world, why is the government so sure it will work in Britain?”

He said that in the past few years Britain has already seen a downturn in drinking comparable to what the Sheffield study says should save thousands of lives. This has not happened, he said.

“We are in the unusual position of being able to empirically disprove a prediction about a policy which has not yet been introduced.”

A doctor writing in the Huffington Post, while calling on the government to trial minimum pricing efforts, said education was vitally important in cutting binge drinking and alcohol-related deaths.

“Educating young people (the vast majority are not addicted and will learn) about the immediate and long term health effects of excessive drinking, on what the different strengths mean and why downing strong liquor too quickly spoils an otherwise good evening, will each have an impact on sensible adolescents who want to have a good time,” said Vincent Brogan.

Because this is the UK, much of the focus was on class, specifically whether the proposal unfairly hits the working class in the pocket. However, commentator James Bloodworth in the Independent argued this was the wrong way to look at the problem, because it is actually Britain's middle class who have the drinking problem.

“The people that are supposed to be getting loaded on cheap alcopops every weekend; those the tabloids and the Government want to price off the booze - you know, the working classes - aren’t, as it happens, drinking anywhere near as much as their middle class counterparts,” he said.

“Am I the only one who suspects that minimum pricing is not primarily about health, but rather about cracking down on that which Middle England is forever fretting about cracking down on: the working classes having too much of a good time?”

There's a chance, though, that none of this fretting matters. According to the FT yesterday, Brussels may well intervene. Will Cameron raise a glass to that?