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Are the new minimum alcohol prices right?

Close up of beer

Shops and pubs will soon be banned from selling alcohol under a minimum amount. Some believe this will help cut binge drinking and crime – others say it doesn’t go far enough. What do you make of the prices?

Binge drinking on the rise, alcohol-related illnesses rocketing, crime continuing… booze is the root of all evil, right?

Well, that’s a whole debate in itself, and answers would depend on your own attitude to, and experiences with, alcohol. But will higher prices help any of these drink-related social problems, or will it just be another price rise for consumers to cope with this year?

The new minimum prices for alcohol

If you missed the news yesterday, I’ll quickly sum it up for you. Ministers have announced a minimum price for alcohol in England and Wales, which works out at 38p for a can of weak lager and £10.71 for a litre of vodka. The image below gives a good breakdown of the costs across different types of drink.

Illustration of new alcohol prices

Minister for crime prevention, James Brokenshire, said: ‘We know that pricing controls can help reduce alcohol-related violent crime and this is a crucial step in tackling the availability of cheap alcohol.’

But others aren’t so supportive of the changes. ‘It’s a step in the right direction, but I have to say its an extremely small step,’ Professor Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. ‘It’ll have no impact whatsoever on the vast majority of cheap drinks sold, for example, in supermarkets.”

A cursory check on both Tesco and Asda’s online stores this morning shows that he’s got a point. Anyone can look at the minimum wine and lager prices above and see they’re low – but what about vodka? This morning, Tesco was selling its Value Vodka for £8.47 (the equivalent of £12.10 a litre) and Asda’s cheapest – Glen’s Vodka – was £11.97 for a litre bottle. Judging by those prices, the new minimum rate of £10.71 a litre looks like an absolute bargain.

But of course, other factors come into play. Deals like buy-one-get-one-half-price or 20% off could push these cheap tipples below the minimum amount, forcing supermarkets to think seriously about price promotions.

What’s the right price?

But will these limits really affect the retail prices of the alcohol we buy? Not according to Jonathan Mail of Camra, the drinkers’ group:

‘We think the ban will have negligible impact as supermarkets sell only a tiny minority of beer below duty plus VAT,’ he said. ‘The decision means pubs will continue to close as they are undercut by supermarkets selling cans of beer at pocket-money prices.’

So, if these prices aren’t high enough, what would be the right amount? Last year researchers at Sheffield University estimated that raising the price to at least 50p per unit would mean that after a decade there’d be almost 3,000 fewer deaths each year and 41,000 fewer cases of chronic illness.

This approach has been endorsed by health watchdog Nice, and would put the minimum price of a pint of beer closer to £1-£1.50.

Who do you think is right? Should prices be pushed up further or should we continue to be sold booze at rock-bottom prices?

Len Lewell says:
21 January 2011

If this minimimum price on alcohol is really to reduce antisocial behaviour and drink-driving then perhaps the government should look at the price of shandies in pubs.

I do a pub quiz on Tuesdays, as I have a long drive to work in the morning I only drink shandies. The cost of a pint of lager shandy is the same as a full pint of lager! Two litres of diet lemonade in a supermarket costs only 18p so people who are trying to drink responsibly are being shamelessly ripped-off.

If pubs were forced to charge a fair price for shandies then more people would be persuaded to limit their alcohol consumption by drinking them.

Len Lewell makes a very good point – the gross margins on soft (or in the case of shandy, softer) drinks in pubs are really anti-social.

I have just complained about the cost of pints of lager shandy in a local pub. Without asking I was charged for pints of Peroni and charged £3.95 each!!!! Half a pint of each drink was lemonade – at almost £2 (almost £4 a pint for lemonade!!!!!)

C Murray says:
23 January 2011

Good way to raise tax (% vat) and keep the cost of living up – nanny stuff . . .

I really wonder whether the relatively small increases being introduced, or even those proposed, would have a significant impact on binge drinking. People intent on getting drunk will in the main not be deterred by the modest price changes. I would introduce hospital charges for people who need treatment and are drunk, and a high fine for anyone drunk committing a violent offence. I would also limit licensing hours as they used to be and review licenses for premises producing drunks – we need to get a more responsible attitude somehow.

Ken Milne says:
7 May 2011

Price has nothing to do with binge drinkers, they will drink regardless. It is very difficult to get that drunk on lager because of the volumes requierd. Shots, high volume (expensive)cocktails, strong cider, and particularly red wine are the true culprits. In Europe 5% alcahol is a minimum in lager and beer and binge drinking is not a problem. Decent sensible and responsable beer and lager drinkers of whom there are millions more than binge drinkers should not be expected to suffer increased prices as a consequence of the action of binge drinkers. I do agree binge drinkers should be charged for hospital treatment police time etc,irresponsable licenced premises should have there licences withdrawn.However consideration must be given to decent hardworking publicans, many who have invested threre all, to run a pub and are struggeling to make a living as high taxation is puting prices beyond afordability, as a result at least 40 pubs a week are closing, an institution which was once the envy of the world. Over reaction to binge drinking is causing other problems when pehaps we should find out why there is a need to binge drink in the first place.

S Tuley says:
24 January 2011

I agree with an earlier comment that the answer to binge drinking is going to be a combination of things like hospital charges for people who need treatment and are drunk and a high fine for anyone drunk committing a violent offence. I would also limit licensing hours and review licenses for premises producing drunks. Perhaps even a compulsory day cleaning the mess left by the binge drinkers – we need people to understand they have responsibilities as well as rights.

Here we have the interfering state again, nothing has changed for the last 30 years whether it was labour conservative or coalition. It’s clever, because the minimum prices are pitched so low that no one will notice to start with, so no one will complain. Then next budget the minimum price will increase and no legislation needed to do that. Taxation by stealth, again under the guise of the government holding the moral high ground. Those in power think we won’t complain as Brits just take everything thrown at them these days. Trouble is, they are right. Most people want to live in their illusive bubble of happiness and security until the bubble bursts and they are forced to face the political muzak.

I strongly disagree with this approach to combat binge drinking. By increasing the price of booze the government is penalising everyone for the actions of a minority. That simply isn’t fair, worse still it treats everyone with equal contempt.
Binge drinking is a British social problem. On the continent booze is much cheaper and they don’t seem to have this problem to any significant degree.
So what’s the answer?
Well not making a pensioners tipple so expensive they miss out, and generally not by penalising all the responsible drinkers.
The answer is to far more heavily penalise the results of binge drinking, fines, overnight drunk tanks, make them clear up after themselves, charge for A&E treatment etc. etc.

Not only is making booze more expensive unfair this approach won’t work. The price will never be high enough and they’ll still do it. That is until more harsh consequences of their antisocial actions deter them.

Erik99 says:
5 February 2011

The real answer – regrettably in some ways, because it is a slow process – is education. I write with experience of alcohol prices in Spain, where beer and wine are readily available in supermarkets for the equvalent of under 50p a litre and spirits about £5 a litre. There is nothing like the problem there that exists in the UK. I have been told that if a group of lads go out to drink, and one gets intoxicated, the others will gently steer him home. If only that happened in UK!

Why does the government not greatly simplify the tax system by simply taxing alcohol at a flat rate of so much per unit, regardless of the type of beverage?

h2400blue says:
8 May 2011

Have left it for a while before commenting but it was very noticeable the price war over the Easter Period and the Royal Wedding , Multi buys in supermarkets brought beer prices crashing down Tesco 4 cases for £25..00 was the cheapest when worked out per 100 ml. and the shelves cleared on a daily basis so yes cost is an important factor with alcohol sales and binge drinking.The pubs kept to a more steady price structure as they have to, to maintain buildings, ,pay staff and other overheads and I discovered it was the usual pattern that is at the end of the day is down to COST. Since licensing hours where extended in Britain you would have expected drink related problems in city’s to have diminished with the longer spread over to consume drink . No the age group up to 25 years in general consume vast amounts of alcohol at home or as a group that have been purchased at supermarkets prior to going out to places with on licences, they are drunk in many cases before they have a drink on a licensed premises and therefore, should be refused entry in this way the licencee would solve the problem before it started, and encourage people that had gone out for a sociable evening to be able to enjoy themselves without being inundated with drunks to spoil the evening when they arrive plastered on cheap booze consumed elsewhere. ..

To me – the prices are too low to act as as a deterrent – First I think supermarkets should not sell alcohol at all. My local Salisbury Supermarket has three times more shelf space devoted to booze than any other product including vegetables – it really is a huge amount . The consequence is large numbers of people drinking on the street dropping the empties and being sick often drunk enough to cause traffic chaos. . And that is in the day!

At night it is worse – with drunk crowds around drinking establishments causing havoc. Before the unlimited opening time such things only occurred very rarely like birthday parties. Now it is weekly.

If all establishments actually stopped serving drunk people (as they should) and limited drinks to two per person – most of the problems would disappear. The problem is primarily due to the young with too much money to spend.

The answer is complex – a mixture of parental control, education, coercion and much heavier fines for being drunk and disorderly. – A £1000 fine would be an excellent incentive for parents to start to care what their off-spring get up to on their binge nights out ..

Madsy says:
23 March 2012

Why should I have to pay more to drink sensibly? If there are people out there who cannot control their alcohol consumption , they will continue to drink no matter what the price, and would probably turn to crime when they can’t afford the cost of their tipple. Maybe a good long stay in a prison cell would bring them to their senses!