David Cameron surprised many this week when he endorsed plans for councils in Greater Manchester to set a minimum price for alcohol. The proposed scheme, which is set to be fully discussed in October, would force both retailers and pubs to charge a minimum of 50p per unit, and follows a similar recommendation from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.
Supporters of minimum pricing claim that it would discourage supermarkets from selling cheap alcohol, which would reduce the number of deaths from related diseases. Indeed, some studies have indicated that even a slightly lower minimum price of 40p, which has been proposed in Scotland, could prevent 1,000 premature deaths a year. There have even been claims that stopping supermarkets from selling cheap alcohol could prevent community pubs from closing down.
On closer examination, however, the case for greater regulation and higher alcohol prices is less compelling. Though excessive alcohol consumption has been linked with a range of diseases, research has also shown that moderate drinking, which would be hit by minimum pricing, may be a more healthy option than avoiding alcohol altogether, with one meta-analysis finding that as many as four drinks a day reduces the risk of death by nearly 20 per cent. And a Spanish study even suggested that heavy consumption of beer and spirits could lower heart disease. Given that heart disease alone costs the British economy £29bn a year, it is likely that alcohol consumption saves more than the estimated £2.7bn cost of alcohol abuse to the NHS.
Similarly, links between crime and alcohol regulation are not straightforward. For example, with an extremely tough licensing regime, which mandates that all strong beers, wines and spirit be sold through a state monopoly, Sweden should have the lowest rates of alcohol-related crime in Europe. Inconveniently, for those longing for Britain to go down a similar path, this is not the case. In fact 86 per cent of violent crimes in Sweden are alcohol-related, while the figure is only 42 per cent for Britain and 40 per cent for Belgium, a country with a licensing regime and drinking culture similar to ours. In any case, using minimum pricing…