Booze firms slam alcohol pricing

The PM's plans to introduce a minimum price on alcohol won't help anyone, lobbyists say.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012
Supermarkets received a slap on the wrist from the PM today, after he announced plans to introduce minimum pricing on alcohol. David Cameron said the minimum price per unit would be set at 40p, while ‘buy one, get one free’ deals would be banned, and pubs would be given more powers to refuse to serve drunk people. For supermarkets, which use cheap booze to lure in customers, that’ll come as something of a blow: how else to persuade customers through their doors now they can’t do a BOGOF on six pack of ‘throwing’ lager or a nice Chablis?

According to Cameron, ‘booze Britain’ costs the taxpayer £21bn a year: these plans will mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year and 900 fewer deaths. Considering figures out yesterday showed the number of people dying from liver disease rose by more than 2,000 between 2009 and 2011, there’s clearly a compelling argument for new rules to be introduced.

Although Cameron did concede that no one will be raising a toast to him: ‘I know this won’t be universally popular, but the responsibility of being in government isn’t always about doing the popular thing. It is about doing the right thing.’ When politicians start talking about ‘doing the right thing’, it’s time to be very careful.

Drinks companies, on the other hand, aren’t impressed. Diageo (the world’s biggest distiller by revenues, which is behind everything from Guinness to Smirnoff vodka) reckons that other than hitting the poorest where it hurts, upping the price of alcohol won’t make the blindest bit of difference. ‘There is no credible evidence from anywhere in the world that it is an effective measure for reducing alcohol related harm,’ huffed Andrew Cowan, the company’s country director for the UK.

He may have a point. Not even the health lobby is particularly impressed by the rules: it wanted the Government to set the price per unit at 50p. By setting it at 40p, Cameron doesn’t seem to be pleasing anyone.

Plus, as health lobbyists pointed out, while the price of beer and wine would be pushed up (a £2.99 bottle of wine containing 9.4 units would be pushed up to £3.76, while a 75p can of lager would go up to £1.20), the price of a bottle of vodka could actually go down by 60p, while scotch whisky could drop by as much as 80p. There’s also the argument that this won’t do much about those worst affected by alcoholism, who will always find the cash for a drink or two – even if it’s by sacrificing something else.  

What’s also slightly confusing is that this seems rather at odds with a ‘responsibility deal’ introduced by health secretary Andrew Lansley just a few months ago, a voluntary agreement which asked drinks firms to improve public health by effectively making their drinks weaker. At the time, it was criticised by health campaigners, who wanted the Government to be firmer. You can’t win, eh?

Still: at least the plans won’t do much to harm the UK’s already ailing pub industry – something the PM was keen to make clear. ‘This will not hurt pubs. A pint is two units. If the minimum price is 40p a unit, it won’t affect the price of a pint. In fact, pubs may benefit by making the cheap alternatives in supermarkets more expensive.’ So at least he’ll be able to drown his sorrows at one of Westminster’s many bars if this doesn’t work out.

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