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Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Minimum Alcohol Pricing Won't Work

David Cameron has said he will increase the price of alcohol in the hope of reducing the costs to the NHS of drink-related problems in accident and emergency wards, for example. The SNP could get no support from Labour and Tories in Scotland when they wanted to introduce the same measure and we have even had the EU say that any kind of measure, which was discriminatory, would be against EU law. As someone who is against EU membership in any case, I would not be in the least concerned what the EU said. The other member states do not have the same problems with drink that we have in the UK, particularly in Scotland, and if it could be shown that a rise in the price of drink, or even some kinds of drink, would solve the alcohol problem, I would not care how high the price went.

My only concern is that a blanket increase in the price of drink hits at those who drink socially and responsibly and who are not a problem to society in any way, as well as those who create the problems and are the real target. It would also have to ensure that the increase in price did not simply increase the profit margins of those who help to create the problem in the first place - the supermarkets and the clubs and pubs with their happy hours and special promotions. Some advocates of the measure claim it could target only those drinks which are popular with young people, drinks such as cider or alcopops. While they may be a part of the problem, they are far from being the only part.

Alcohol has been a problem in Scotland for as long as I can remember, although many of those who were considered to be a problem, saw nothing wrong with their behaviour. There were always families where the father, mainly, was known to "like a drink", which sometimes meant he liked a drink to the point where his family were forced to go without. That would sometimes be accompanied by weekend violence, usually directed at his wife and kids. As a young police constable I attended quite a few of those "domestics", which did not always end in the culprit "getting lifted". I walked the beat with a few of the old style men who dealt out their own kind of summary justice. Those days are long gone and far too many of the victims of problem drinkers now get very little of any kind of justice because there is ample evidence that the laws we have in place are simply not being applied with the kind of vigour which might have some serious impact on the drink problem.

Economic theory tells us that price will effect the quantity demanded of any product, assuming ceteris paribus or all other things remaining equal. Those other things include the general level of income, tastes and fashion and so on. If tastes and fashion change, the price of an object or pastime which has fallen out of favour will not matter a toss. If the fashion has changed radically, the item could not be given away. Similarly, if the general level of income increases, certain goods and services are then brought within the grasp of people who could not have afforded them in the past, therefore demand for those goods and services will increase with price having little or no effect. In fact, if incomes increase substantially and fashoins change at the same time, substantial price increases can also be tolerated. In many of the clubs and pubs, drink is not cheap, but the other two factors have changed to such an extent over the years that price of itself, will have a limited effect. It migh have some impact if the price is increased, of the drink sold in spermarkets, the drink that is often consumed before the drinkers ever get near the pubs and clubs. That will do nothing to change the culture of public drunkeness which afflicts this country now.

There was a time, which does not seem all that long ago, that the only women who were seen drunk in the streets were the kind you would not take home to your mother. Now, no weekend and some weekdays, are complete without seeing groups of half-naked young women either sprawled in the streets drunk or falling out of the various clubs, mouthing obscenities as loud as any of the young men. Neither is it unknown for some of the young ladies to be seen urinating in the street, once only the preserve of their male counterparts. Drink may have fuelled the loss of inhibitions which give rise to that kind of behaviour but anyone who thinks that increasing the price of the stuff is going to combat the fall in values which has given rise to such a fall in public standards, really is kidding themselves. They may think it provides a quick fix and politicians can then claim they are "addressing the problem" but neither is even scratching the surface.

Why do young women think they must behave like that or that it is acceptable behaviour? The obvious answer is that our society has deemed it is acceptable, which is perhaps part of the reason we have the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in Europe. Years of teaching the mechanics of sex, within an environment almost totally empty of the values of self-respect and dignity, to say nothing of the importance of sharing in something so precious, really teaches nothing at all that could not be discovered in some picture book. When people have little or no respect for themselves, they are hardly likely to have any for anyone else. I have been in almost every country in Western Europe and not a few in the Eastern part. In not one of them have I seen the displays of public drunkeness we see every week in Scotland. Price in many of them is much lower than it is here, even taking the supermarket prices into consideration, and despite the cafe culture, which includes taking glasses of wine and spirits from early morning to the early hours of the following morning, people do not fall about drunk. France and Russia have their health problems associated with the hard stuff but standards of public behaviour are better than ours. Without addressing that, we are not addressing the problem at all.

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