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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 15th March 2012

In those few seconds spent concentrating on setting off in the car rather than deciding what to have on the radio, I heard an introduction to an item that caused me to set aside my long-standing rule not to listen to BBC Radio4’s ‘You and Yours’ programme. It was about a report that found UK domestic energy prices are amongst the lowest in Europe.

Gas and electricity prices are triggers for hysterical reactions from people about ‘rip-off Britain’ and ‘fat cats’ profiteering so I was interested to learn more about this report. Sadly, this was ‘You and Yours’ so the interviewer wasn’t about to abandon the entrenched position that big business must be bad.

The interviewer focussed on a finding from a parliamentary select committee that retail gas prices don’t fall in line with falls in the wholesale price. The representative from one of the large utility companies tried to explain that this can never happen because wholesale prices move minute by minute whereas retail customers want stable pricing. The real question to be asked was whether the utility companies can show that their actions in smoothing out volatile wholesale pricing aren’t used as a chance to make excess profits but that question was missed in favour of harping on the single point but never allowing a full explanation to be given.

I’ve written, at some length, about this item to establish the aggressive style of questioning adopted by the interviewer. That’s the style that means I usually turn the programme off. But, for the following item, the same interviewer became complete docile in the face of a demonstrably misleading contribution from the guest.

The item started out about how drinks companies are reducing the strength of some drinks to move them into lower tax bands and the guest was a representative of the alcohol industry. A decision taken to reduce the costs of the industry (and there was no attempt to determine if those reduced costs are all being passed through to the customer) is being spun as the industry being responsible and trying to reduce the harm caused by its products.

Inevitably, during the discussion the question of minimum pricing came up and the industry man trotted out the mantra about responsible/moderate drinkers being penalised because of a minority who, probably, won’t reduce their drinking in any event.

This went entirely unchallenged, yet, it is total nonsense on two counts. I’ve written before about this 2nd Nov but for as long as the drinks industry keeps pushing it I’ll keep giving my counter opinion.

There are two flaws in the argument made by the drinks industry and the drinks retailers who are also pedalling it. The first is the assumption that all alcohol prices will rise if a minimum price is imposed. The talk is of a minimum price of 45p or 50p a unit. A 750ml bottle of wine with a strength of 12% alcohol by volume (ABV) has nine units of alcohol. Any bottle of wine selling for more that £4.50 is already above the 50p per unit mark. Why would a £15 bottle of champagne, say, increase in price because a can of rotgut white cider has gone up?

There are other reasons why I don’t accept that all alcohol would increase in price but I’ve dealt with them before so I’ll concentrate on what I see as the second flaw in the claim. What would be the impact on a responsible/moderate drinker?

Government guidelines are for men to drink a maximum of 21 units a week and women a maximum of 14. Within that overall maximum there is further guidance about daily maximums and having alcohol-free days, but I’ll stick to the maxima. If alcohol went up by 10p a unit a heterosexual couple drinking the maximum recommended would see a rise of £3.50 a week in their household spend. Last November, the Guardian reported average weekly spend to be £473, so a £3.50 increase amounts to 0.7%, hardly a massive burden.

But, it is not even as bad as that. I wouldn’t define someone consistently drinking the maximum as ‘responsible/moderate’. I’d expect moderate drinking to average no more than two thirds of the maximum, something like 24 units a week per couple. And, I’d expect a responsible drinker to do some of that drinking in a social setting, like a pub or a restaurant, and those prices certainly won’t be going up when we hear so much about how on licence sales are struggling to compete with off licence pricing.

Making two visits to licensed premises and drinking three units per visit each sees our responsible/moderate couple having 12 of their 24 units out. Those 12 at home units would only rise by £1.20 or 0.3% of average weekly spend. And, just a reminder, that is if all alcohol rises by 10p a unit not just the lowest priced.

Reading that back I recognise that there are a lot of assumptions and maybes in those calculations so I’m not claiming that everyone will see only a 0.3% increase. But what I am claiming is that there is plenty to question in the drinks industry’s assertion that responsible/moderate drinkers will be penalised by a minimum per unit price.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the media starting asking those questions?