Sunday, 2 September 2012

New Figures on Drink Consumption But Same Old Arguments

It was announced last week that for the first time since records began in 1994, the amount of alcohol sold in Scotland has fallen. Health officials have warned however, that consumption of alcohol in Scotland is still 10% higher than it was 18 years ago and 20% higher than current consumption in England and Wales. There could be several reasons for this, some cultural, some economic, but the new figures have done little or nothing to persuade the usual suspects on either side of the "Minimum Pricing War", to re-examine their positions. If anything, they have simply been spun by each side, in order to show they were right all along.

It would be a gey queer person who claimed that alcohol is not a problem in Scotland, that it has not been a problem not just for years but for generations. I would suggest that the problem now is far greater because of the number of women who think it is perfectly socially acceptable to be seen falling around drunk out of their skulls, in pubs and clubs, public transport and the streets. I can remember when very few women would allow themselves to be seen drunk in public and those who did, rightly or wrongly, were looked down on by their family and neighbours. I have no intention of rehearsing the problems that excessive alcohol consumption can create because the person who cannot see them for themselves must be wilfully blind. The argument about Minimum Pricing is worth re-visiting however, since government policy based on a false interpretation of the available statistics, is bound to fail at best or at worst, creat another set of problems without solving the original problem with alcohol.

It is claimed that studies have shown that consumption is directly affected by price and, it makes sense to increase price so that consumption will fall. The theory then goes on to claim that the number of hospital visits will be cut by 3,000 a year, the number of deaths will be cut by over 500 a year and the number of crimes will be cut by more thousands a year. Those figures are based on assumptions that the theory is correct, not on any factual evidence. It is assumed that those who are the problem drinkers, the thugs who cause mayhem, the ones with the health problems, will alter their drinking habits as a consequence of the price hike. Dream on. Problem drinkers by definition, do not alter their drinking habits, even in spite of legal penalties, health penalties and broken families and why those who want to solve the problems cannot see that, is quite beyond me. The image of the "wee hard man" who drinks nips and pints is well known in Scottish culture and any man that cannae drink is no a man. That type of drinker could no more say what a unit of alcohol costs than fly in the air.

None the less, Peter Rice, chair of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems proclaimed, "The latest NHS figures show as the cheapest alcohol has increased in price, its sales have decreased and overall alcohol sales have also decreased. What clearer demonstration can we have of the link between unit price of alcohol and its consumption? And how outrageous is it for the industry to deny that such links exist?" Minimum pricing has not yet been introduced, therefore it can hardly be responsible for the reduction in alcohol consumption. Mr Rice goes on, "Many studies have shown price increases have a substantial impact on reducxing consumption and lead to significant health and social benefits". The main study in the UK is that which was carried out by the University of Sheffield in 2008 and applies only to England, although it is the one which is used to justify the policy of minimum pricing. The study states, "there is substantial uncertainty in the available evidence and need for further research." It also confirmed that no study has been made of price increases on specific groups of drinkers, therefore there is no evidence of what effect price increases have had on those with a drink problem or, who can be classed as problem drinkers.

That is also true of the study in the USA, "Effects of Price On Alcohol Consumption and Consequences" but at least that study did make a distinction between "demand" and the "quantity demanded". A change in price will have an effect on the quantity demanded of a good or service but it will not effect the general level of demand. It is that distinction, on which policy decisions by a series of Chancellors of the Exchequor in UK governments, have been determined. Increases in tax on alcohol would have been counterproductive and total revenues would have fallen, if the general level of demand was effected by an increase in price brought about by an increase in taxation. The concept is known as the elasticity of demand, which means that the percentage change in the quatity demanded will be less than the percentage change in price, thereby leading to an increase in revenue. When the policy was announced a few weeks ago, a Canadian spokesman from Toronto was interviewed and when asked if the policy worked he said, "It definitely does because when we increased the unit price of alcohol, although sales were down, revenues still went up".

What that should have told him was that the policy was a failure, as sales may have gone down but not by enough to have a major effect on problem drinkers, as total revenues still went up. As elsewhere, Toronto had no idea if those who had decreased their consumption, were those who were causing the problems associated with excessive consumption of alcohol. Just to add to the mix, other "experts" now claim that "gangsters will double their trade in illegal alcohol, to the value of £500 million". Where do they get the figures? From the same place as all the other "experts" in this so-called debate get theirs, from some other "expert's" febrile imagination, although this "expert" goes by the name of an Edinburgh-based think tank called Front Line Policy.

If consumption of alcohol has gone down in Scotland, does anyone know why? The short answer is "No" because there has been no study done but it is likely to have something to do with the fact that the country has been in recession for the past few years, that the general level of income has gone down in many households as unemployment and part-time working has increased. In the majority of households in Scotland which do not have a problem with drink, people will have re-assessed their spending patterns and the odd bottle of wine or spirits will no longer be purchased. There will also be fewer nights out and less spent when they do go out. In other words the majority of people in Scotland do not have a drink problem and when economic conditions deteriorate, whatever alcohol that was drunk, is no longer drunk. Has that helped to solve the drink problem that Scotland does have? Not really, as the people who are drinking less did not have a problem in the first place. Will it change the mind set of the protagonists on both sides of the argument about minimum pricing? On the evidence so far, the short answer is "NO". Those who are against, are more against because they now see no necessity for it as consumption has already fallen. Those who are "for", are even more "for" because they aver that the correlation between price increases and consumption are now proved, despite the price increases having yet to be implemented.

Perhaps one day it will be accepted by both sides that those who have a drink problem in Scotland, will not have that problem solved by hiking up the unit price of alcohol. Those with a substantial problem will do without food and other goods, in order to buy drink and the higher the price is hiked, the more of other items will be sacrifised in order to buy drink. It may suit politicians to claim success or those who do not understand basic economics, however sincere their belief in what they are doing. Alcohol will continue to be a problem in Scotland until we change the culture, not the price

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