Alcohol-related admissions to hospital are at an all time high and alcohol is linked to almost half of all violent crime. Despite this, booze is 45% cheaper, relative to income, than 30 years ago.
As Theresa May, the Home Secretary, said a year ago: “All the historic evidence is that if you want to deal with excessive consumption of alcohol you put the price up, and dealing with the price is what works.”
Indeed, last year the Prime Minister and Home Secretary thought that introducing a minimum unit price (MUP) would save lives, cut crime and reclaim our town centres: why would they now be willing to drop this straightforward measure?
A minimum price of 45p per unit would not solve the country’s alcohol problem overnight. But something like it would be a good place to start. In 2007, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) argued for raising the price of alcohol via an increase in duty, on a per unit basis, with the proceeds used to protect the NHS budget and tackle the £3 billion that alcohol costs the health service every year. (This contrasts with MUP which would see the retailers receive a higher price for the alcohol they sell.)
It seems the Prime Minister will now back down on the MUP pledge, in the face of Cabinet pressure from Liberal Democrats (who claim it is illiberal) and some Conservatives (who believe it will hit the living standards of responsible drinkers).
So it was good to hear him confirm at Prime Minister’s Questions that:
There is a problem with deeply discounted alcohol in supermarkets and other stores, and I am determined to deal with it. We have published proposals, and are considering the results of the consultation on them, but we must be in no doubt that we must deal with the problem of 20p or 25p cans of lager being available in supermarkets. It has got to change.
If there is life in this policy yet, we have to hope that any additional revenue will head to those who help rebuild lives blighted by addiction. Additional taxation will do little in the first instance to reduce alcoholism. But increasing the amount of funding to recovery services undoubtedly would.
What’s more, arguing that MUP will hit only the poorest misses the point: it is the poorest families that are hit hardest by alcohol-related problems.
The inaugural Recovery Festival took place this week and showed where efforts to tackle alcohol addiction should focus. The voluntary, independent, and some statutory organisations came together to promote those who have overcome addiction and become model employees.
The Prime Minister, David Blunkett, Russell Brand and Iain Duncan Smith all spoke from the same platform to state that given a chance, those who have beaten their habit can be the most loyal, productive employees. A rise in alcohol duty to fund better treatment would be an invaluable way of helping more people realise their potential.