TOPIC GUIDE: Boozy Britain
"Minimum alcohol pricing would be good for Britain"
PUBLISHED: 01 May 2012
AUTHOR: Dolan Cummings
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In May this year, the Scottish Parliament passed the Alcohol Minimum Pricing Bill [Ref: Scottish Parliament], which sets a minimum price for all alcoholic drinks of 50p per unit of alcohol. The UK government is planning similar legislation for England and Wales [Ref: BBC News], with a minimum price proposed of 40p. Widespread concern about the availability of cheap alcohol, with regular headlines about ‘boozy Britain’ [Ref: Daily Mail], teenage ‘binge-drinking’ [Ref: BBC News], or indeed middle-aged people drinking too much [Ref: Independent] indicates a growing worry over the extent of alcohol abuse in Britain. Advocates of minimum pricing argue that alcohol is a powerful drug, and should not be treated as just another commodity [Ref: Economist]. There is a consensus across the mainstream political spectrum that something needs to be done. Even people who are unsure it will work believe it is better to try this than do nothing [Ref: BBC News]. Nevertheless, the proposals have their critics, who variously dispute the legitimacy of state intervention in the free market - arguing minimum pricing amounts to a ‘sin tax’ [Ref: Guardian] - object to the government trying to manipulate public behaviour and characterise the concern with excessive drinking as a ‘moral panic’ based on snobbery about people who enjoy drinking, rather than a real social problem [Ref: Guardian]. They also point out that minimum-pricing would hit the poorest consumers hardest [Ref: Guardian] and that overall Britons are drinking less than in the past [Ref: Independent]. Nonetheless, supporters of minimum pricing insist there is undeniably a problem and that anyone who doubts this should visit their local A&E department on a Saturday night [Ref: Independent].
DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
A ‘public health’ measure
Excessive drinking can cause serious damage to people’s health, both long-term through liver disease and other chronic conditions, and short-term through alcohol poisoning and injuries associated with drunkenness, whether from accidents or violence. That violence is also regarded as a serious problem in itself: alcohol is considered a significant factor both in domestic violence and street violence, particularly late at night in towns and cities when groups of drinkers spill out into the streets from closing pubs and clubs. Advocates of minimum pricing suggest drunken disorder at closing time is fuelled by ‘pre-loading’, when people get drunk on cheap alcohol at home before going out for the evening [Ref: BBC News]. Drawing on an influential model developed by public health experts [Ref: University of Sheffield], Prime Minister David Cameron suggests a minimum price of 40p per unit of alcohol ‘could mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year and 900 fewer alcohol related deaths per year by the end of the decade’ [Ref: BBC News]. Before the government settled on a minimum pricing policy, however, even health secretary Andrew Lansley argued it would have little effect, suggesting it is ‘absurd’ to think a slight rise in price would deter so-called pre-loading [Ref: Independent on Sunday]. But Professor Alan Brennan of Sheffield University insists, “The evidence is absolutely completely overwhelming that if you increase prices people drink less alcohol” [Ref: Independent on Sunday]. What remains unclear is whether minimum pricing will reduce the harm caused by excessive drinking, or simply mean moderate drinkers cut down further to save money. Critics point out that problem drinkers are least likely to respond to a price rise; in economic terms, their demand is the most ‘inelastic’ [Ref: Centre for Policy Studies]. In terms of public health, however, any reduction in the amount people drink is seen as a good thing.
Is minimum pricing unacceptably paternalistic?
Most people agree that in principle individuals should be free to make their own decisions about how they live, provided they don’t harm anyone else. This idea is closely associated with the 19th century British thinker JS Mill, and is commonly known as the ‘harm principle’ [Ref: Wikipedia] From this perspective, if people choose to drink too much, that is their own business, and the state has no right to interfere. Against this, many argue that excessive drinking does cause harm to others, in a variety of ways: drunk people sometimes behave badly or even violently, while the effects of drunkenness on health increases costs for the NHS [Ref: Guardian]. Critics counter that the drinks industry raises more in taxes than drinking costs in healthcare [Ref: Adam Smith Institute] and, perhaps more importantly, that individual drinkers who misbehave and break the law should be held accountable as individuals, rather than punishing all drinkers with higher prices [Ref: Centre for Policy Studies]. Others argue that the state has a responsibility to help people make the right decisions, through education but also laws, such as the ban on smoking in public places [Ref: Independent]. They also suggest minimum pricing is simply a sensible extension of existing licensing laws [Ref: The Sunday Times]. Critics point out that many public health campaigners see minimum pricing as part of a strategy of ‘denormalising’ alcohol, so it is treated as an illicit drug rather than a normal part of life, meaning that further regulations are likely to follow [Ref: spiked].
Does Britain need to change its relationship with alcohol?
For some, the problem with drinking in Britain is not simply that a minority drink too much, but that the whole culture is too accepting of drunkenness. From this perspective, minimum pricing could be seen as a positive statement about the need to change attitudes, regardless of whether it can be shown directly to reduce harm [Ref: Independent]. Britain’s drinking culture is often compared unfavourably with the culture in countries like France and Italy, where people drink regularly but less heavily, and tend not to get drunk in public. While drink in those countries is in fact often very cheap, supporters of minimum pricing in the UK argue cultural differences make it necessary here [Ref: Telegraph]. Critics counter that there is nothing wrong with Britain’s drinking culture, and that for most people alcohol is an enjoyable part of everyday life, insisting that a sharp distinction should be drawn between the minority of problem drinkers and the majority of responsible drinkers [Ref: Spectator]. Taking a different tack, social anthropologist Kate Fox accepts there may be some problems with Britain’s drinking culture, but argues that the tendency to blame alcohol for bad behaviour – and to treat it as an illicit drug - actually undermines responsibility far more than alcohol itself. Fox advocates a completely different approach that emphasises alcohol does not cause disinhibition and that, even when drunk, you are in control of and responsible for your behaviour [Ref: BBC News]. A major question at stake is whether, overall, the availability of cheap alcohol improves people’s quality of life by allowing them to enjoy a product they like at low prices, or whether it diminishes quality of life by encouraging unhealthy drinking habits.
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
Dr Sarah Wollaston MP and Philip Davies MP Centre for Policy Studies
Gillian Bowditch The Sunday Times 19 May 2012
Dr Carsten Grimm Pulse Today 12 April 2012
Philip Hensher Independent 24 March 2012
Ewan Hoyle Democrat Voice 30 December 2011
Sarah Wollaston Guardian 11 October 2011
Vivienne Nathanson Guardian 14 March 2011
Tanya Gold Guardian 15 May 2012
Sam Bowman Adam Smith Institute 23 March 2012
Ryan Bourne Centre for Policy Studies 23 March 2012
Chris Snowdon Independent 15 November 2011
Jonathan Jones Guardian 23 September 2011
Brendan O’Neill Guardian 3 March 2009
British Medical Association April 2012
Matt Chorley and Jonathan Owen Independent 18 December 2011
Ciara Kenny The Sunday Times 6 November 2011
Kate Fox BBC News 12 October 2011
Josie Appleton spiked 23 March 2011
James Nicholls History Today Volume: 60 Issue: 1 2010
Leah McLaren Spectator 30 December 2009
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Mary Kenny Independent (Ireland) 26 March 2012
BBC Newsnight 23 March 2012
Sky News 23 March 2012
HM Government March 2012
Steve Richards Independent 16 February 2012
Martin Cullip The Free Society 30 November 2011
NICE 21 June 2011
University of Sheffield 18 January 2011
Battle of Ideas 2010
Richard Reeves Guardian 7 January 2010
University of Sheffield
Idea (International Debate Education Association)
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
BBC News 27 May 2012
Thisissomerset.co.uk 24 May 2012
Thisislondon.co.uk 24 May 2012
Independent 16 May 2012
Daily Mail 16 May 2012
BBC News 16 May 2012
Fox News 14 May 2012
Pulse 11 May 2012
Telegraph 9 May 2012
BBC Newsnight 23 March 2012
Sky News 23 March 2012
Battle of Ideas 2010
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