What's wrong with cheap booze?

Posted on October 6, 2016

The Alcohol Health Alliance is in the news today, reporting on the fact that it is possible to buy alcohol very cheaply. For example, the AHA's latest report says: 'Both Asda and Tesco were found to be selling perry at 19p per unit, while Morrisons were selling cider at 20p per unit and Sainsbury’s stocked perry at 22p per unit.' The AHA's chairman, Sir Ian Gilmore, said 'In spite of a government commitment to tackle cheap, high-strength alcohol, these products are still available at pocket money prices. Harmful drinkers and children are still choosing the cheapest products - predominantly white cider and cheap vodka.'

What is to be done? Surprise, surprise, Gilmore's answer is to make booze more expensive: 'We need to make excessively cheap alcohol less affordable through the tax system, including an increase in cider duty. It’s not right that high strength white cider is taxed at a third of the rate for strong beer. In addition, we need minimum unit pricing. This would target the cheap, high strength products drunk by harmful drinkers whilst barely affecting moderate drinkers, and it would leave pub prices untouched.'

There are a few problems with the temperance lobby's demands. First, most people are not remotely heavy drinkers, consuming levels of alcohol that are at worst harmless and at best beneficial to health. The AHA seems to think that drinking cheap booze is a problem in itself. That sounds awfully like snobbery.

Secondly, the comparative cheapness of some ciders and perries should alert us to something else: the high taxes charged on almost every other kind of alcohol. Duty rates for various types of alcohol are:

cider and perry:
38 pence per litre, rising to £2.69 per litre for anything over 7.5% alcohol

most wines:
£2.78 per litre

beer:
18 pence for each per cent of alcohol per litre (with an extra duty for strong beers)

spirits: 
£27.66 for every litre of pure alcohol

So, Frosty Jack's costs about £1.20 per litre, of which nearly half the price is duty and VAT. For a very cheap bottle of vodka, more than 80 per cent of the cost could be duty and VAT. (A quick visit to the Eastern Europe offers a handy reminder of just how cheap booze is when tax rates are more in keeping with other consumer products.)

But the most egregious idea in the AHA's latest tirade is the use of the term 'pocket-money prices', dealing a heavy hint that these products are aimed directly at children. The trouble is that selling alcohol to children is illegal - and rightly so. Of course, children will often be able to get hold of it one way or another, but the law is clear and correct. Alcohol should be an adult choice.

Equally, when we become adults, we shouldn't be robbed by the exchequer in the name of protecting our good health. If someone on a low income, for example, wants to enjoy a drink, they shouldn't be prevented from doing so by onerous taxes. Nor should they have to drink Frosty Jack's - not the most subtle of drinks - in order to be able to get a 'buzz' if they want one. Indeed, we should be able to choose to get drunk whenever we want. If we get ourselves into trouble as a result, being drunk is no defence. But most people just want to relax with a drink and shouldn't be prevented from doing so - or be fleeced by the taxman - for the privilege.

Far from making booze even more expensive, we should be demanding lower alcohol taxes, so we can spend the cash saved on something else - or buy better booze instead.