The Sociology of Minimum Pricing

The following is an excerpt from an article I authored for a licensing journal back in November 2009. Note that this relates to the aborted attempt to introduce minimum pricing under what became the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Act 2010 and at that time the proposed price was 40p per unit. I came across this again recently and I think the points I make about the “sociological” ramifications of minimum pricing remain relevant today.

Introducing a minimum price of 40p per unit will save 70 lives in Scotland in the first year of its operation, and over ten years will reduce alcohol related deaths by 20%. So said the Government sponsored report into the effect of their proposals to introduce minimum pricing of alcohol in Scotland (released 28/9/09) which, if implemented, would mean Scotland will be the first country in Europe to take such a step. And who can possibly argue against saving lives without seeming pedantic and unfeeling? Can one argue against statements such as “There is an overwhelming case that cheap drink damages Scotland’s health record”, from such luminaries as Dr Emilia Crighton of the Faculty of Public Health in Scotland (15/11/09), or celebrity endorsement from Irvine Welsh (22/11/09). The SNP have, in the form of this research and supportive statements, a blunt instrument with which to respond to any arguments against the proposal. Who would dare seen to be “anti saving lives”?

The SNP administration has been extremely keen to address Scotland’s problem relationship with alcohol, and for that they are to be applauded. Figures released in September 2009, show that the rate of death from alcohol abuse is up to 5 times higher than the national average in some areas of Scotland – particularly the east end of Glasgow. Headlines such as “Glasgow: The City That’s Drinking Itself to Death” (The Herald, 16 September 2009) should serve as a wake up call to us all. One of the more controversial proposals seeking to address these issues has, of course, been minimum pricing. The idea of introducing minimum pricing – that is, setting a minimum price at which alcohol can be sold based on units – has been haunting the halls of Holyrood for some time now and will finally shrug off its phantom status and materialise as a fully formed part of the new Alcohol Bill to be published later this year, with this new research to support it.

SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES

There are also those who express concerns about minimum pricing from a sociological perspective: the only products which would really be affected by these proposals (at 40p a unit) are the lower end, “house” brands in the off-sales sector; in turn, those on a lower income who make their choices as consumers based on price alone, to consume at home, are the ones directly affected in the pocket – hence why some see this as a “tax on the poor”. It will not affect pub prices one jot. Some commentators argue that this policy will not reduce problem drinking or antisocial effects (the “if people want to get drunk, they will” argument), but instead simply penalise those of us are able to enjoy a few drinks without damaging ourselves, or resorting to pillaging and barbarism. Raising the price of alcohol will not force the problem drinker to drink less, he will simply elect to use a larger portion of his expendable income on the drink, and spend less on other commodities such as food or clothes.

I also see some force in the views of those who say that the Government is more concerned with headline grabbing policies such as this rather than “grass roots” strategies to tackle our problems with drink at the social and individual level. Minimum pricing is being proposed as part of a wider series of “actions”, the ultimate aim of which is to force us to consume less alcohol, but the proposals seem only to target the licence holder, not the individual, who if he wants to go out and get drunk can do so regardless of a minimum price. The level of prosecutions against individuals committing drink related offences requires a microscope for analysis, such is their dearth. Rather than penalising businesses, should we not be looking at the fundamental problems underlying why there are people in Scotland who feel the need to self-medicate and use drink to numb the social, economic and intellectual poverty they experience in their daily lives?

There is another issue here: the Scottish Government seems to be using an inverse-positivist approach to its law-making. It decides on a law and publishes it, and then at some further point it releases research it commissioned which back the proposals already released. As I said earlier, it is difficult to argue against any policy which seeks to save lives, but do we then fall into the trap of being forced to accept whatever policy is promulgated? The Government seeks to implement policy based on facts; but the Sheffield research is not positivism or empiricism, it is speculation.  It is also a re-hash of their previous statements commissioned by Westminster and published in December 2008. I have some difficulty with Holyrood’s decision to instruct Sheffield University when they already knew what the results were going to be. Should the authority and legitimisation of law be based on its material source (that is, Parliament) or on a wider consideration of the socio-political, or moralistic, aims and policy intents? These are matters perhaps beyond the scope of this article.

THE REPORTING OF SPECULATION AS FACT

What is of concern is the blithe way in which some parties seem to simply accept the fact that “70 people will be saved” in the first year of minimum pricing without question. It is, to my mind, amazing that these estimated figures can be trumpeted in such a way. The results of the Sheffield research are, after all, a totem carved from conjecture and guesswork (something which the authors of the report have themselves point out). Similarly, for the Government to declare that £1billion would be saved over ten years is just silly; placing such an exact outcome on something which is difficult to measure based on history, let alone on clairvoyance, is questionable. And yet in some media reports these figures are presented as truth. 

I admit that I am not qualified to “pick holes” in this research with authority. But, with fond memories of my MA in Sociology from some ten years ago, I do have some observations. The Sheffield research model for the relationship between price and consumption is an “econometric” model. This has been challenged by some sociologists and economists because it is model based on conjecture, and therefore there is some question about the reliability of using inferences to launch a major policy when such models are untested in reality. The Sheffield research indicates: “[d]ue to data limitations, the change in levels of peak consumption has to be estimated indirectly”.

I do not see how the model between price and consumption takes account of alcoholism, nor how it takes account of factors such as impulse buying, localised influences such as group purchases; or other psychological factors such as the consumerist influence of “seeing a bargain” regardless of whether the product is alcohol or not. I also think there are issues with the Sheffield research using its English model as a base and adapting it to Scotland – where it can. It uses a sample of 11,500 people in Scotland through the Scottish Health Survey. Is a sample of 11,500 people large enough on which to found policy? Then of course there is the issue over how accurate these 11,500 people have been in the answers they gave. Did they lie? Did they underestimate or exaggerate their answers? Does the Government intend to take into account that the very same survey confirms that in fact consumption has dropped by 4% for males and 3% for women between 2003 and 2008?

In fact, a number of the results in the Sheffield research are based on estimates: daily maximum consumption for 11 to 15 year olds is estimated; it is assumed that that the peak consumptions for 11 to 15 year olds are the same as 16 and 17 year olds; the data used is from 2003 (other sources indicate consumption levels have fallen in the last 3 years); in general terms Scottish data is used “where available”; no data for the Scottish off sale market is used so they rely on the English data on the assumption the markets are the same; there are difficulties in avoiding double counting hospital admissions and discharges for the same person; English data is used in relation to alcohol-influenced crime statistics for 10 – 25 year olds; and so on. Where Scottish data is used, the researchers admit that the sample sizes are much smaller than the English equivalents.

MODS AND ROCKERS

In his seminal sociological text “Folk Devils and Moral Panics” (1972), Stanley Cohen discusses what have become known as “moral panics”, that is; “a condition, episode, person or group of persons [who] become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”. In his case, he looked particularly at the  “Mods and Rockers” phenomenon (and resultant social outcry) but since the publication of his book one can point to series of other “panics”, for example the so-called “rave culture” of the early 1990s. There is a discernable cycle to these panics; and in every case it is suggested by Cohen that the reaction speaks to society’s attempts to rationalise the alleged break-down in social fabric by pointing the finger of blame at one aspect or subset of society. In turn such events are exaggerated and sensationalised by the media to the point that Government has to be seen to act – and we are left with what Cohen referred to as a “control culture”. Perhaps it is not too much of a leap to see how this sort of thinking may apply to minimum pricing; pictures of “booze and vomit soaked streets” make for good copy, but if a resultant policy hits responsible and irresponsible drinkers alike, then perhaps it is an example of a paternalistic hegemony, or to give it the current nomenclature – the “nanny state”.

Finally, I wish to make it clear that I applaud efforts to reduce alcohol health harm. But I also feel that if there are issues with a policy, then these issues should be aired and debated, otherwise we end up with bad law; even if the intention is good. And, regrettably, the quality of licensing legislation from Holyrood is already in question from a number of quarters.

November 2009.

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About Stephen McGowan

Leading Scottish licensing solicitor at TLT. Chairman of BII Scotland.
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One Response to The Sociology of Minimum Pricing

  1. Pingback: The Laughable Delusion Of Sarah Wollaston MP | The Libertarian Alliance: BLOG

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