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Scotland to introduce minimum price for alcohol

In 2012, the Scottish Parliament voted to introduce a minimum unit price for alcoholic drinks. The Scotch Whisky Association along with others appealed against the legislation, but on 15 November 2017 the UK Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the legislation does not breach European Union law. It is thus likely that, after consultation, a 50p minimum unit price will be introduced, making Scotland the first country in the world to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol.

As we saw in a previous blog, Alcohol minimum price, the aim is to prevent the sale of really cheap drinks in supermarkets and other outlets. For example, three-litre bottles of strong cider can be sold for as little as £3.59. Sometimes supermarkets offer multibuys which are heavily discounted. The idea of minimum pricing is to stop these practices without affecting ‘normal’ prices. For example, the legislation will not affect prices in pubs, which are already more than 50p per unit of alcohol.

The following table shows how much prices would rise for various types of drink when compared to current cheap supermarket prices. The biggest percentage effect is for cheap, strong cider and beer.

Strength Size Units of alcohol Current price New minimum price
Cheap strong cider 7.5% 3 litres 22.5 £3.50 £11.25
Cheap wine 13% 750ml 9.75 £3.99 £4.88
Cheap beer/lager (normal) 4% 4 × 440ml 7.04 £2.50 £3.52
Cheap beer/lager (strong) 8% 4 × 500ml 16 £3.50 £8.00
Cheap spirits 37.5% 70cl 26.25 £10.00 £13.13
Cheap strong spirits 50% 70cl 35 £12.00 £17.50

The hope is that by preventing the sale of really cheap drinks in supermarkets, people will no longer be encouraged to ‘pre-load’, so that when they go out for the evening they are already drunk. It would also help to reduce the number of alcoholics amongst the poor.

But this raises the question of equity. By targeting cheap drink, the policy is likely to hit the poor hardest. The question is whether this will simply lead to alcoholics on low incomes cutting down on other things, such as food and clothing for themselves and their children.

How successful, then, will such a policy be in cutting down drunkenness and the associated anti-social behaviour in many Scottish towns and cities, especially on Friday and Saturday nights? This will depend on the price elasticity of demand.

Videos and podcasts
Scotland first country to introduce minimum alcohol price Channel 4 News, Fatima Manji (15/11/17)
The story of how Scotland brought in minimum pricing on alcoh The Scotsman, Ross McCafferty (15/11/17)
Supreme Court rejects challenge against plans for minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland ITV News, Peter Smith (15/11/17)
Scotland getting the all-clear for minimum alcohol pricing as judges reject appeal Heart Scotland News, Connor Gillies (15/11/17)

Articles
Alcohol minimum unit pricing to go ahead Scottish Government: news (15/11/17)
Scottish alcohol price survey 2016 Alcohol Focus Scotland (2016)
Minimum pricing Alcohol Focus Scotland (2017)
Supreme Court backs Scottish minimum alcohol pricing BBC News (15/11/17)
Supreme Court backs Scottish minimum alcohol pricing plans Out-Law.com (15/11/17)
Go-ahead for minimum alcohol pricing British Medical Association (BMA), Jennifer Trueland (15/11/17)
Expert reaction to UK supreme court ruling that the Scottish government can set a minimum price for alcohol, rejecting a challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association Science Media Centre (15/11/17)
Scotland to become first country with minimum price for alcohol sales Independent, Alex Matthews-King (15/11/17)
Scotland leading the world over minimum alcohol price ITV News (15/11/17)
Campaigners urge minimum alcohol price in England after Scottish ruling The Guardian, Severin Carrell (15/11/17)
Scottish ‘booze cruises’ to England predicted as minimum pricing introduced The Telegraph, Olivia Rudgard (15/11/17)

Questions

  1. Draw a diagram to illustrate the effect of a minimum price per unit of alcohol on (a) cheap cider; (b) good quality wine.
  2. What would be the likely effects of a 50p per unit minimum price on the pub trade?
  3. How is the price elasticity of demand for alcoholic drinks relevant to determining the success of minimum pricing?
  4. What determines the price elasticity of demand for cheap alcoholic drinks?
  5. Compare the effects on alcohol consumption of imposing a minimum unit price of alcohol with raising the duty on alcoholic drinks. What are the revenue implications of the two policies for the government?
  6. What externalities are involved in the consumption of alcohol? How could a socially efficient price for alcohol be determined?
  7. Could alcohol consumption be described as a ‘de-merit good’? Explain.
  8. Other than high minimum prices and taxation, what other policies could be used to (a) tackle binge drinking; (b) tackle the problem of alcoholism?
  9. What will determine the number of people travelling from Scotland to England to buy cheaper alcoholic drinks?
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The end of bargain booze?

Ministers are considering introducing a minimum price of 45p per unit of alcohol on all drinks sold in England and Wales. The Scottish government has already passed legislation for a minimum price of 50p per unit in Scotland. This, however, is being challenged in the Scottish courts and is being examined by the European Commission.

As we saw in a previous blog, Alcohol minimum price, the aim is to prevent the sale of really cheap drinks in supermarkets and other outlets. Sometimes supermarkets sell alcoholic drinks at less than average cost as a ‘loss leader’ in order to encourage people to shop there. Two-litre bottles of strong cider can be sold for as little as £2. Sometimes they offer multibuys which are heavily discounted. The idea of minimum pricing is to stop these practices without affecting ‘normal’ prices.

The effect of a 45p minimum price per unit would give the following typical minimum prices (depending on strength):

Strength Size Minimum price
Wine 12.5% 750ml £4.22
Beer/lager (normal) 4.5% pint (568ml) £1.15
Beer/lager (strong) 7.5% pint (568ml) £1.92
Beer/lager (normal) 4.5% 2 litres £4.05
Beer/lager (strong) 7.5% 2 litres £6.75
Cider (normal) 5% pint (568ml) £1.28
Cider (strong) 8% pint (568ml) £2.04
Cider (normal) 5% 2 litres £4.50
Cider (strong) 8% 2 litres £7.20
Whisky 40% 700ml £12.60
Vodka 37.5% 700ml £11.81

The hope is that by preventing the sale of really cheap drinks in supermarkets, people will no longer be encouraged to ‘pre-load’ so that when they go out for the evening they are already drunk.

But how successful will such a policy be in cutting down drunkenness and the associated anti-social behaviour in many towns and cities, especially on Friday and Saturday nights? The following articles discuss the issue and look at some of the evidence on price elasticity of demand.

Articles
Alcohol minimum price plan to be unveiled BBC News, Dominic Hughes (28/11/12)
Multi-buy alcohol deals face ban under minimum price plans The Telegraph, James Kirkup (28/11/12)
Alcohol at 40p, 45p or 50p a unit to be Cameron choices for minimum price The Guardian, Juliette Jowit (25/11/12)
Minimum price plan to end cheap alcohol sales BBC News, Nick Triggle (28/11/12)
Minimum pricing having a difficult birth in Scotland BBC News, James Cook (28/11/12)
Cameron to set minimum price for alcohol Independent, Brian Brady (25/11/12)
Minimum Alcohol Price: Doubts Measures Will Cut Binge Drinking Huffington Post (25/11/12)
An industry divided: Pubs set against brewers and retailers in battle for cheap booze This is Money, Rupert Steiner (26/11/12)
A minimum price per unit of alcohol BMC Public Health, Adam J Lonsdale, Sarah J Hardcastle and Martin S Hagger (23/11/12)

Home Office alcohol policy
Alcohol strategy (23/3/12)

Questions

  1. Draw a diagram to illustrate the effect of a minimum price per unit of alcohol on (a) cheap cider; (b) good quality wine.
  2. How is the price elasticity of demand for alcoholic drinks relevant to determining the success of minimum pricing?
  3. Compare the effects of imposing a minimum unit price of alcohol with raising the duty on alcoholic drinks? What are the revenue implications of the two policies for the government?
  4. What externalities are involved in the consumption of alcohol? How could a socially efficient price for alcohol be determined?
  5. Is imposing a minimum price for alcohol fair? How will it effect the distribution of income?
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Alcohol minimum price

A huge majority of the British population are in agreement on one thing: UK drinking is out of control. At a cost to the NHS of over £2 billion per annum, it’s quite obvious that the current ‘binge drinking’ culture is unsustainable for those doing the drinking and for the NHS.

This issue was raised back in January 2010, when the Labour government came under pressure to impose a minimum price on alcohol. (see All-you-can-drink bans) The report published in early January suggested that a minimum price on alcohol of 50p per unit would save more than 3000 lives per year. Dr. Richard Taylor said:

“The evidence we took showed that minimum pricing was the most effective way forward and at the moment you can sometimes buy beer cheaper than water. Our message is that the price would be put up but only by a little for moderate drinkers. Surely that is a sacrifice to pay for the good health of young people.”

The Coalition’s plan is to introduce a minimum price for alcohol, which would increase the price of a can of lager to a minimum of 38p and a litre bottle of vodka would be a minimum of £10.71. By increasing the price of alcohol, it is hoped that demand will be reduced and this will go some way to tackling the problem of binge drinking.

However, many argue that the proposal will be ineffective. Some believe that the minimum price is not high enough and that such a small increase will have no effect. Others argue that it will only affect small supermarkets and will have a significantly adverse effect on pubs, which are already struggling. Furthermore, a concern is that by raising the price of alcohol, the only people who will suffer are the so-called ‘sensible’ drinkers. Those who go out and binge drink will be largely unresponsive to the higher price.

Articles
How can raising the price of alcohol improve health BBC News, Michelle Roberts (18/1/11)
Pub association responds to alcohol minimum price BBC News (18/1/11)
SNP refuses Britain-wide alcohol minimum price Telegraph, Simon Johnson (19/1/11)
Experts say the new minimum prices on alcohol sales are not enough Wales Online, Abby Alford (19/1/11)
UK drinking ‘is out of control’, two thirds of public believe Guardian, Alan Travis (18/1/11)
Alcohol price plans will only save 21 lives per year, says expert Telegraph, Tom Whitehead (19/1/11)
Supermarkets forced to charge ‘minimum price’ for alcohol in bid to curb binge drinking Mirror News, James Lyons (18/1/11)

Report
Alcohol House of Commons Health Committee (10/12/09)

Questions

  1. Using a diagram, explain how a minimum price control on alcohol will work. What are the likely effects?
  2. Which factors will determine the effectiveness of the minimum price?
  3. Why is it that ‘binge drinkers’ may not be responsive to the higher price?
  4. The Mirror article refers to ‘loss leaders’. What are they and how are they relevant here?
  5. What other policies could be used to tackle binge drinking?
  6. Given that taxes on products such as alcohol and cigarettes raise so much tax revenue for the government, would there be an adverse effect by raising the minimum price on alcohol?
  7. Why is the current drinking culture unsustainable?
  8. Is alcohol a de-merit good? Why is it an example of market failure?
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When the cap doesn’t fit

UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee has concluded that the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is not working as it should. Thanks to a total emissions cap that is too low in a time of recession, the carbon price has fallen. The result is that there is no longer sufficient of an incentive for firms to invest in green technology. As the Financial Times article (below) reports:

The committee has urged the government to consider other measures, such as a floor price for carbon dioxide emissions, which would provide industries with greater certainty over the price of carbon and help to ensure the system of pricing was effective.

The MPs said a price of €100 per tonne of CO2 could be necessary to encourage investment, compared with current prices of about €13.

So is the committee correct? Or is a low price of carbon merely temporary, with firms realising that the price will rise as the European economy recovers? The following articles examine the issues.

Carbon markets failing, say British MPs Financial Times, Fiona Harvey (8/2/10)
Carbon prices are going the wrong way Independent, David Prosser (8/2/10)
U.K. Lawmakers Call for Intervention in Carbon Market BusinessWeek, Catherine Airlie and Ewa Krukowska (8/2/10)
UK should press EU for tighter carbon caps Reuters, Nina Chestney (8/2/10)
MPs propose carbon tax to boost green investment Guardian, Terry Macalister (8/2/10)
As UK Cap and Trade Falters, Government May Prop Up Carbon Prices Environmental Leader (9/2/10)
EU ETS intervention call howled down CarbonPositive (9/2/10)

The report
The role of carbon markets in preventing dangerous climage change Environmental Audit Committee

Questions

  1. Explain how the ETS works.
  2. What determines the price of carbon in the ETS? Why has it fallen in recent months?
  3. Compare the alternative policy approaches for encouraging green investment.
  4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of setting a floor price for carbon permits? What would be the effect on the balance of demand for and supply of premits?
  5. Discuss whether the total number of permits allocated should be reduced (i.e. the cap tightened).
  6. Compare the relative merits of giving the allocation of permits away with auctioning them.
  7. Compare the relative merits of a cap-and-trade system with green taxes.
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All-you-can-drink bans

The government has been under a lot of pressure to tackle the culture of binge drinking. Figures for 2006/7 show that the cost to the NHS of binge drinking was £2.7 billion per year. In response, MPs are calling for a change in government policy towards the alcohol industry, arguing that at present the drinks industry has more control over policy than health experts. So what can be done?

In a report published in early January 2010, the House of Commons Health Select Committee proposed a minimum price per unit of alcohol, tighter controls on advertising and mandatory labelling. A minimum price, the Committee argued, would reduce demand by heavy drinkers who are looking for cheap alcohol. At present, many supermarkets have promotions that involve selling cider and beer at below cost, allowing people to ‘pre-load’ cheaply at home before going out drinking. The report suggested that a minimum price of alcohol of 50p per unit would save more than 3000 lives per year and a minimum price of 40p per unit would save 1100 lives.

Dr. Richard Taylor, an independent MP and member of the Commons Health Select Committee, said:

“The evidence we took showed that minimum pricing was the most effective way forward and at the moment you can sometimes buy beer cheaper than water. Our message is that the price would be put up but only by a little for moderate drinkers. Surely that is a sacrifice to pay for the good health of young people.”

However, those opposed to setting a minimum price per unit of alcohol argue that it would be unfair on moderate drinkers, that it wouldn’t work and that it could even be illegal. Instead, they argue that that government intervention needs to be smarter. It should not target everyone, but solely those groups consuming the most alcohol. The British Beer and Pub Association suggests that 10% of the population consumes 44% of all alcohol.

It appears that the government won’t be following Scotland’s minimum price on alcohol, but will instead impose bans on all-you-can-drink deals and introduce compulsory identity checks. However, supermarket deals don’t appear to have been targeted. Successive governments have failed to tackle this problem sufficiently, but with an election approaching, will this be a proposal that is promoted?

Raise alcohol price to save lives, MPs argue Telegraph, Rebecca Smith (8/1/10)
Commons committee backs minimum alcohol pricing BBC News (8/1/10)
Campagain to tackle cut price alchol The Arran Banner (8/1/10)
Wyre Forest MP calls for alcohol minimum pricing The Shuttle (8/1/10)
Should 50p be minimum price for a unit of alcohol? Have your say BBC News (8/1/10)
BBPA: minimum price would be ineffective Morning Advertiser, Ewan Turney (8/1/10)
Cost of binge drinking doubles for the NHS rises to £2.7 billion Mirror, James Lyons (2/1/10)
Bring in 50p minimum price for alcohol, MPs urge Guardian, Toby Helm (3/1/10)
All-you-can-drink pub offers facing ban BBC News (19/1/10)
Too much of the hard stuff: what alcohol costs the NHS THE NHS Confederation, Issue 193 January 2010
Minimum pricing for alcohol essential, says Health Committee Marketing Week, David Burrows (8/1/10)

Minimum alcohol pricing ‘will affect the poor’ BBC News, Kevin Barron and Gavin Partington debate (8/1/10)

Questions

  1. How is the equilibrium price of alcohol determined?
  2. Illustrate and explain the effects of the imposition of a minimum price.
  3. To what extent is a minimum price likely to be effective? How is elasticity likely to play a role in the effectiveness of such a policy?
  4. Why could the introduction of a minimum price on alcohol be illegal and contravene European competition law?
  5. What are the arguments for and against a minimum price on alcohol? Explain how and why some people will gain and others will lose.
  6. How would a minimum price on alcohol affect government spending? Would more investment in prevention lead to a lower cost to the NHS? Explain your answer.
  7. Why might bans on all-you-can-drink deals be ineffective?
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