Today the government announced plans to prohibit shops from selling alcoholic drinks at below the cost of duty and VAT, effectively ushering in a minimum price on alcohol.
Now, there are many arguments in favour of discouraging binge drinking. It fuels violence, means our police and NHS are dealing with drunken trouble-causers every weekend and is incredibly unhealthy. However, I remain convinced that setting a minimum price for alcohol is not the way to go about this. Not only am I not convinced at its claims of efficacy, I am actively opposed to it.
Firstly, this is a measure clearly aimed at the poor. Let's get that out there right now. It's about people who have to make hard choices about how to spend what little disposable income they have, not about people who won't notice that something is a bit more expensive. This makes this proposal extremely patronising, as it assumes that those who will actually be affected by a minumum price on alcohol are incapable of making their own decisions about how much to drink. This is, essentially, the government saying "sorry, but if you're poor, you can't be trusted not to spend all your money on too much alcohol and get all violent and unhealthy, so we're going to make sure you can't". This proposal also heaps judgement on the poor - apparently everything's fine and dandy when the middle class drink to excess, but not those oiks on minimum wage!
Secondly, this is an overly-simplistic and facile argument to make. As if by raising the price of alcohol, suddenly, and magically, everyone will want to stop binge drinking! Well, newsflash: if people want something that's bad for them, the price of it is unlikely to matter. Heroin and cocaine are expensive, that doesn't stop people who want to take them taking them.
Finally, does anybody actually believe that people are that stupid? That someone would wander into a supermarket wanting to buy two cans of lager to drink that day, but see a special offer and buy 24 instead, and then proceed to drink them all in a day? Have they never thought that people could leave alcohol undrunk in their house for another day?
So, what other solutions to the binge-drinking problem can we come to? Some argue in favour of repealing 24 hour licencing laws. I also think that this would be a pointless endeavour, again going back to my point that if someone wants something that's bad for them, they will have it anyway. All that reducing licencing hours would achieve would be to punish small shopkeepers and pub landlords, who can ill-afford it. I believe that all we can really do is to continue to promote education about the negative effects of alcohol abuse. However, as with smoking, we must accept that some people will insist on choosing to do things that aren't good for them, and no amount of puniative taxation or minimum pricing will stop that.
As it happens, todays proposals happen to install minimum prices that are so low as to be completely ineffective anyway - at 38p can of lager, for example. So why are they being brought in at all? Is this just an attempt by the government to look caring? Or in order to pave the way for larger minimum prices in future? That by setting out the framework for the legislation with no real fuss from anyone now, they may amend it later? Is it a cynical attempt to deflect attention from their actions elsewhere?
While I cannot answer these questions, what I can do is state that the introduction of a minimum price on alcohol is yet another example of measures announced by this government which will hit the poorest hardest.
EDIT: In the interests of fairness, I'd like to leave a link to something Sally Bercow wrote at Labour Uncut, since disagreeing her tweets made me write this post. I'd also like to direct you to the comments, a lot of people are also making very good points there.