Why the Donaldson proposal deserves a better debate.

March 16, 2009 by
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

It is no surprise that the suggestion by the Chief Medical Officer of a minimum price for alcohol has caused such a stir. Most of us drink so we feel we have a stake n the debate. Alcohol abuse is an important and visible social policy issue. Policy analysts will be fascinated by the relative merits of various ways of trying to reduce consumption. And, of course, it opens up again the argument between the advocates of Government paternalism and the critics of the ‘nanny state’.

Some people may have spotted that even in this summary I have given the argument a subtle tilt. When I talk about ‘Government paternalism’ it suggests a group of people in Whitehall imposing their will. But in a democracy Government is there to carry out the wishes of the people, so really the question is whether one section of opinion in society should be able to impose its wishes on another. Putting it this way makes the issue seem different. Alcohol related crime and disease costs the country billions, while drunkenness can tear families apart and makes city centres into no go areas. So why shouldn’t society act to try to reduce the harms of alcohol abuse, especially as no one it talking about banning access to booze just making it slightly more expensive.

The alcohol industry, which was in my experience one of the most disingenuous lobbies I had ever to deal with in Government (always banging on about voluntary codes but then doing virtually nothing to enforce them) says the Donaldson proposal is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. But, it isn’t just the alcoholics and the drunks we need to worry about. As I understand it, a growing proportion of alcohol related illness is the result of routine over consumption – a few cans of lager in front of the TV or a bottle of wine every night.

The minimum price idea is at least worthy of closer consideration. And I don’t understand why the major parties have already briefed their opposition (well, actually, I do understand the politics but I don’t approve). This is a classic example of an issue on which if the debate feels like it’s the Government versus the public it will be suspicious and polarised. It would be better if ministers kept an open mind and, perhaps, advocated something like a citizens’ jury to weigh up the options. After all, apart from a few head banging libertarians, this is hardly a matter of ideology; we already regulate and tax alcohol.

So, for once, I thought James Purnell got it wrong when he seemed to rule out the Donaldson proposal yesterday. As far as I know James doesn’t have particular expertise in public health so to react so firmly suggests he sees this as a matter of principle rather than evidence. But where is the principle? Would it apply just as strongly if the proposal was for a forty pence per unit minimum, or thirty, or twenty? If the Government appoints respected people like Sir Liam Donaldson to senior posts, surely they should at least listen to his arguments before rushing to judgement.

Which makes me an ungrateful and arguably hypocritcal person. Because on Friday night I was in East London at a party hosted by James Purnell and friends. And, yes, before you ask, while James himself was the perfect host, I did drink a little bit too much. The bar was free for the first few hours but, to be honest, after the week I’d had I don’t suppose charging me fifty pence a glass would have acted as much of a deterrent.

On a related note, we have Alan Johnson talking at the RSA on Thursday morning on the subject of public health – you can find more information about the event here.



  • http://www.freedomclothingproject.org joe

    Is price a deterrent? I don’t drink more than a glass a year, so I’ve no horse in this race. But presumably people who take drugs are paying more per hit than the minimum suggested here. Does that stop people taking drugs?

    I wonder how much of the income of the alcohol industry derives from selling very low price alcohol, which is mostly sold to alcoholics (and to people trying to protect their cabbages from slugs like me). Presumably a fair amount otherwise they wouldn’t bother.

    The typical middle class attitude seems to be that cheap alcohol should be banned primarily because it is disgusting. Whereas pickling your liver on expensive binge drinking of wine is perfectly normal. Excuse me whilst I find that rather disingenuous.

    Meanwhile, has anyone else noticed this campaign: http://www.neednotgreed.org.uk

  • http://www.glossydrama.co.uk Susmita

    I fear an extra charge on alcohol will impact heavily on my newest idea for the staff meetings. I was hoping for champagne and peaches in lieu of tea and cake. Peaches are obviously healthier than cake and champers contains vitamin B and iron.

  • http://www.glossydrama.co.uk Susmita

    On a more serious note, something I’m slightly unclear about is why they don’t just raise the tax. Is this because the Government don’t want to be seen as killjoys? If, as I suspect, demand for alcohol proves inelastic – a fairly recent development methinks – then the firms involved will do very well out of it, but there won’t be any extra in the public purse to assist with treating those who suffer illness as a result.

    • matthewtaylor

      Good points Susmita. I think the evidence is that an increase in price at the low end does lead to lower consumption precisely because those who buy cheap alcohol are more price sensitive.

  • John Craig-Sharples

    I think that introducing a minimum price does warrant further investigation as it could have a detterent effect on some people. But perhaps the more important issues are cultural. Alcohol consumption and having a good time are seen in the UK as synonymous and whereas attitudes have shifted on smoking, we still have a very relaxed attitude to the health and social problems caused by alcohol. That said, things do change – drink driving is much less socially acceptable today than it was twenty years ago, probably due to shifting attitudes informed by social marketing and better enforcement.

    Dealing with the problems caused by alcohol in a number of ways, including making it more expensive, seems eminently sensible to me. It is often the ‘nanny’ state which has to find the resources to deal with the consequences of alcohol abuse, so preventative approaches do seem worth exploring.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks John. As I said the, state is us; it is elected on a mandate we give it and it spends our money. So those who say action on alcohol infringes freedom have to address the fact that taxpayers have no choice about their money being spent on the costs to the NHS and criminal justice system of alcohol abuse.

  • http://blog.matthewcain.co.uk Matthew Cain

    It’s when politicians react so foolishly to such considered, important issues, that I wonder whether there’s any hope for doing politics differently.

    The challenge for politics really engaging with people lies not in Gordon Brown doing some questions for YouTube or holding Cabinet meetings in big cities but reacting sensibly and thoughtfully in moments like this.

    • matthewtaylor

      I agree Matt. See today for more on the problem of connection

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