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         The politics of drinking
February 17, 2010



Does minimum pricing work? A doctor wriggles 
out of it

Dr Petra Meier is lead author of the University of Sheffield study into the impact of pricing on alcohol consumption and harm. Every time you read that there is sound evidence that minimum pricing works, this is what theyíre referring to.

Last week Dr Meier had a serious attack of cold feet. She told MSPs it was only Ďa modelí and she is, herself, clearly on the edge of her seat with anticipation about what will happen if, and when, itís introduced in Scotland.

"The idea of modelling is you haven't introduced a policy, you're trying to project what is going to happen. It's like the weather forecast, you don't evaluate it afterwards, it's a model."

She encouraged the Scottish Government to go ahead with the plan. "You are the focus of the international community at the moment in terms of minimum pricing, exactly because it hasn't been attempted before and people want to see what happens if someone goes ahead."

Minimum pricing has, in fact, been tried in Canada, but only on a localised basis. And Meier seems not only to have as little confidence in that as in her own research. Scotland, if it goes for it, will be going into the unknown.

Not that I imagine anything terrible happening. But I really canít see it Ďworkingí in the sense that itís going to relieve Scotlandís alcohol problems.

New temperance has placed a big emphasis on minimum pricing over the past year or so. In fact, since the Sheffield study was published in November 2008. It has become the cutting edge of the temperance argument, a rallying point. And itís split the drinks industry, because pubs see it as a way of closing the price gap with the off-trade.

Even without Sheffield, thanks to the ridiculously low prices of some supermarket alcohol itís a powerful argument.

Yet if there is some kind of ethical justification for minimum pricing, the scientific case is far from robust. The Sheffield study is an impressive document, but itís just one among many. And most of the rest are reluctant to come to any firm conclusion.

Drug & Alcohol Findings recently reviewed the debate in typically painstakingly balanced fashion.

Itís plainly not a straightforward argument. There are variables to contend with. Elasticity, for instance. At what point does the price deter purchase? That depends on who you are, where you are and what youíre drinking.

Sheffield makes a bold bid to make sense of this. There is no data that links price with consumption and harm so it pulls together different data sets and tries to match them up. Itís not an exact correlation.

There are political objections, too. Minimum pricing, concludes Findings, will hit the poorest hardest.

The counter argument to this, taken from the Sheffield study, is that it will target heavier, rather than moderate, drinkers. This is because heavier drinkersÖ erÖ drink more, and they tend to drink the cheaper alcohol that will be caught by minimum pricing.

There is a touch of the undeserving poor about this. And apart from that you have to worry about the addicted. Will price stop them drinking? Perhaps theyíll just eat less. Or thieve more.

As Dr Meier admits, we simply donít know.

Minimum pricing isnít about the application of science, itís about the application of politics.

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