Coffee House

Why is the government so confident minimum alcohol pricing will work?

26 November 2012

Given the decidedly mixed record of minimum alcohol pricing around the world, why is the government so sure it will work in Britain? The figures it quotes are certainly striking: a 50p unit price will reduce annual alcohol-related mortality by 900, 3,393, “more than 1,000” or “nearly 10,000” a year in England alone. But how solid are they? The Adam Smith Institute did some digging, and found that all of these predictions can be traced back to a computer model designed by a team at Sheffield University. The model has numerous flaws, many of a technical nature, and like all models it is only as good as the data and assumptions that are pumped into it. These assumptions range from the questionable to the demonstrably false.

One of the questionable assumptions is that reducing the affordability of alcohol will inevitably reduce its consumption and related harm. Sometimes it does, of course, and yet alcohol consumption has fallen in most of Europe and the USA (though not the UK) in recent decades despite rising incomes making alcohol relatively more affordable. Even in the UK, the moral panic about booze being sold at ‘pocket money prices’ has coincided with a sharp and sustained decline in alcohol consumption since 2004. Amongst the demonstrably false is the assumption that heavy drinkers and alcoholics are more likely to reduce their consumption when prices rise. This is at odds with the evidence and with basic common sense.


The Sheffield computer model is riddled with optimistic assertions and wild speculation of this kind, all of which happen to paint a rosy picture of England under a minimum pricing regime. Some might argue that a degree of speculation is inevitable when predicting the consequences of an untried policy – although my co-author, the statistician John C.Duffy, believed that if your job is to make ‘worthless predictions’, you should find alternative employment.

The funny thing is that we already know what would happen to alcohol-related mortality if the Sheffield model’s assumptions are correct. All of its projections are based on a 50p minimum price reducing per capita alcohol consumption by 6.7 percent from the 2006 level. But we know exactly what would happen if alcohol consumption fell by just under 7 per cent from the 2006 level because we have lived through it. Indeed, the decline in per capita consumption since that year has been closer to what the Sheffield model predicts would happen under a 70p per unit regime (ie. a 17 per cent decline). According to the model, the kind of reduction in alcohol consumption that Britain has already experienced should have reduced the number of alcohol-related deaths by 1,273 (28 per cent) in the first year, rising every year until 7,263 deaths (62 per cent) are prevented each year by 2015. None of this has happened. We are in the unusual position of being able to empirically disprove a prediction about a policy which has not yet been introduced.

Chris Snowdon is a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute and author of a number of books including ‘The Spirit Level Delusion’, ‘Velvet Glove, Iron Fist’ and ‘The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition since 1800’.

More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us now.

  • martinlovetype

    i don’t know how they have a clue how many people will live longer…OH WAIT, nor do they. Scotland off to brussels today: I hope it can save people from alcoholism etc but I don’t know how it can be without (as many here have said) penalizing responsible drinkers.

  • Gallbladder

    Tell me one thing. Over here in Scandinavia, the price of alcoholic drinks is controlled by tax rather than minimum pricing. Why is Britain setting a minimum price instead of collecting a higher tax? The UK government has too much money or something, so the yields of a price hike must be given to the pockets of supermarket owners, rather than the welfare state?

  • mwh999

    A very poor piece of journalism.

    It asserts that the findings of the Sheffield
    model are against ‘common sense’ which is basically a meaningless criticism –
    most interesting scientific results at one time could have said to be ‘against
    common sense’.

    It states that there are technical issues with
    the Sheffield model but declines to mention them – perhaps the authors cannot
    understand the model or have not read the reports produced. They should list
    the technical issues.

    The point the Sheffield modellers are making
    about heavier drinkers is that when the price of alcohol increases through higher
    excise taxes these can be avoided by switching to cheaper drinks. When the
    price of the cheapest drinks are increased by minimum pricing this makes that
    quality substitution more difficult. Since there is some evidence that heavier
    drinkers are more likely to drink cheaper drinks a minimum price might affect
    them more than average drinkers.

    The authors claim to have done some digging but seem
    to have missed recent work on the effects of the minimum price in British

    Although the co-author is said to be a
    statistician he is obviously unfamiliar with stochastic modelling of the type
    necessary to analyse complex social policy – the Sheffield model is entirely
    within that framework.

    There are many sensible and pertinent criticisms
    to be made about the effectiveness of minimum price policies but none are
    contained here.

    • Eddy

      Did you read the article?
      The claim made by the study is refuted by what has actually happened here since 2006.
      If you want more details of the arguments you could look at Mr Snowdon’s blog: velvet Glove Iron Fist. There is plenty there.

  • Paddy Hart

    Is Cameron actually a “Conservative” anymore? This proposal is something that Nannystatist Neu Arbeit didn’t even dare try.

  • Daniel Maris

    It will give a much needed boost to the Polish-Lithuanian illegal distillery industry in this country and provide much work for hospital eye clinics threatened with closure, as young people are occasionally blinded by the illicit hooch.

  • Daniel Maris

    …because they had one too many expensive malts?

  • hepworth

    Home brew for me then…. What’s the betting sugar will be taxed to high heaven now?

    • eeore

      Use honey… oh wait, the GMO and pesticides is killing the Bees.

  • MirthaTidville

    Funny how Dave knows the price of a unit of alcohol but doesnt appear to know the price of Bread, Milk, petrol or gas

  • DavidDP

    Trying to cover the costs of negative externalities through goverment action would seem to me to be something positive. The other thread on charging for NHS prescriptions shows further attempts to this, but somehow seems to be drawing less criticism for increasing the costs on peopele. Odd.

    • Rhoda Klapp

      Negatve externalities again. The pretext for anything in the land of the left. People are responsible for what happens to them through their actions. Far better if that responsibility (which cannot be avoided any more than gravity) was conveyed to the folks instead of the idea that they were in need of being looked after.

      (I don’t drink enought to worry about the price, but I understand that some people get a certain mount of pleasure from it, and I do not see why they shouldn’t, if they don’t get in my way. If they make a nuisance of themselves through drink, we already have laws for that.)



    Why is Cameron using public money to go abroad and promote Common Purpose?
    Go on Spectator, tell us why, what with all that access and close insider contact you enjoy at No.10, you haven’t revealed that Cameron endorses the insidious work of this Hard Left organisation whose graduates have been exposed in recent weeks with failed journalism and turning a blind eye for 12 years to organised child sex scandals?
    Or would it be just too too Non-U and infra dig for an actual journalist not to respect those precious Chatham House Rules?

    • eeore

      And odd how the university of Sheffield has produced this report. Given Sheffield’s Common Purpose network.

  • MichtyMe

    A minimum price will not penalise “responsible drinkers”. I will not increase the price of what normal people consume. It will remove the jumbo bottles of white lighting, strong, 7.5% “cider” sold for less than a £1 per ltr which adolescents like to poison themselves with.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I am a normal person. I drink supermarket gin at less than £10 a bottle (among other things). Will my gin not go up then?

      • Gavin

        If the supermarket gin is 37.5% by vol and a bottle is 70cl then it contains 0.7 x 37.5 = 26.25 units of alcohol, so if the minimum price per unit is set at 40p, such a bottle would cost £10.50. At 50p £13.13. The policy is stupid though as boozing in general is not a problem, it’s just that a tiny proportion of the population has a problem – which will not be resolved by a general decrease in consumption.

        • Persecutedsmoker

          Boozing is just as much if not more a problem than smoking , I’m a smoker that doesn’t drink and I am absolutely delighted , all those non smokers who drink every night can now have a taste of there own medicine …what next ?..putting a bloke beating his wife up on the side of a bottle of wine or can of beer…..yes please!! We need health warnings on drink bottles to warn of the dangers……just like smokers …..filthy habit drinking is! ….cowabunga dudes

  • Heartless etc.,

    “Why is the government so confident minimum alcohol pricing will work?”

    Because they are mostly idiots – led by the H2B (Chief Idiot at Large).

    PS care to remember all the Bliarist bullshit that the H2B so faithfully espouses?

    PPS – all you who care to doubt that the H2B is indeed the H2B turn your minds to Speccy articles wherein are quoted ‘senior’ ‘Tory’ people ascribing the word “Master” to the Hero of the H2B.

  • Troika21

    Increasing the price will reduce the consumption. The question is, how will drinkers and producers respond? Drinkers might move onto something else (worse?), whilst companies might reduce the alcohol content (I suspect it will be mostly supermarkets who do this, cheeky lot) and that could actually increase the amount some people consume.

    Typical elitist thinking from our political masters – all those poor people not drinking properly, better make them, it’s for their own good!

    Either way, this is penalising responsible drinkers who happen to be poor.

  • Noa

    The obvious reason for an alcohol unit tax is to raise revenue.
    Any further increases to wine and spirit duty would be politically unacceptable to both the Brewing industry and the public who drink in licensed premises.
    Beware hypocritical politicians who tell you any new tax is for your own good.

  • Peter Witting

    Knee-jerk politics never needed to look at the facts. Only yesterday I saw my MP on TV talking complete bollocks over another counter-intuitive issue. Neither politicians, the media or the tabloid readers have the intellect to understand counter-intuitive.

  • John_Page

    Several government policies involve making us poorer, e.g. finance for windmills. Do they think we’re made of money? How important to them is the size of our personal disposable income? And when did the government last make anything cheaper?

    • HFC

      Well, today’s news would suggest they are trying to make home insurance cheaper for some people & buy their votes, perhaps? WTF is the government doing, meddling in insurance? People who live in flood susceptible areas have none of my sympathy; they should have considered the local topography before they bought.

  • Cogito Ergosum

    Minimum pricing for alcohol is the kind of busybodying interfering nonsense one would have expected from the previous government, not this one.

    About 600,000 people die per year in the UK. No new measure should be considered unless it can save at least 1% of that number, ie 6,000.

    • alan kelly

      Agree with the stat argument – pity so many never consider an SPC approach to big decisions, or even a basic mathematical one.

      The situation we see here is the NHS being used as an argument to increase taxation. When you consider that the 100s of % taxation rates on cigarettes and alcohol almost exclusively fund the NHS, it would be a better argument that those ill of injured from the effects of those two twin ‘evils’ be given special private-like hospital treatment – they have certainly paid for it.

  • D B

    If booze becomes too expensive, we shall just have to cut down on luxuries such as clothing, food and heating.

  • Gerry Dorrian

    Introducing minimum pricing for shop-bought booze is only one side of the equation. To make drinking a little more sensible, the taxes pubs have to pay on drink have to be brought down, so that drinking moves out of houses and into pubs where the licensee would have a vested interest in seeing that things don’t get out of control.

  • somewhatbiased

    If the authors of this critique want to debate the scientific literature, why not submit their analysis to peer review in a respectable journal? Also. why does it not contain a declaration of interest statement from the authors? If it was in a scientific journal it would need this.

    • Eddy

      If you think he got something wrong then lets hear what it is. As far as a declaration of interest goes, I don’t think any author or commentator provides such. Perhaps you could start by providing your actual identity and your interest.

    • Kevin

      Alternatively, since this is a political policy, why not give Sheffield University a right of reply in a political forum?

  • Colonel Mustard

    Well by all accounts it is not the government so much as Cameron himself. Ask him why he thinks this will work or why he is so determined about it. No one has yet as far as I can see and I remain baffled by his peculiar priorities and passions in the face of so many other clear and present dangers.

    • alan kelly

      It’s all connected to the scourge of the democratic system – votes.

  • Sackosborne

    My £1 bottle of beer from Tesco (3.8 units) will then cost about £1.50 while the PM’s posh wine will remain the same price. Well done David, helping the posh boys again.

    • D B

      Responsible drinkers are being penalised.

Can't find your Web ID? Click here