‘Leave cider alone’ groups on Facebook are proliferating as we speak. Who would have predicted that, faced with unprecedented levels of public debt and the need to drive down an enormous deficit, yesterday’s budget would be remembered as the day Alistair Darling cracked down on scrumpy.
The introduction of a10% above inflation rise in duty on cider is intended to address a ‘long-standing anomaly’ where cider drinkers have paid less duty per drink than beer drinkers. This is in line with budgets of the past few years which have tried to address another anomaly – up until the last few years, alcohol was around 70% more affordable as a proportion of income than it was in 1980.
But if this is also intended to address concerns about teenagers bingeing on Diamond White on park benches, it is unlikely to have a major impact. Underage drinking is most often done through older teens or adults buying cheap alcohol from supermarkets or discount stores, rather than pubs or clubs. The major supermarkets will simply absorb the increased duty rates and continue to use alcohol as a loss leader.
Political parties are caught between wanting to address the very real problem of vast increases in drinking among young people and adults over the past few decades and not wanting to penalise moderate drinkers. Only the SNP-led Scottish government is sticking its neck out by planning to introduce a minimum pricing policy which would see a floor price set for a unit of alcohol.
Some commentators have dismissed this approach as ‘regressive’, describing it as part of a ‘new temperance’ movement led by public health officials intent on restricting individual choice.
But we are living in a country which has seen a fivefold increase in liver disease over the last 30 years. Though fewer young people are drinking overall, those who do drink are drinking twice as much as their counterparts in the 1990s. Enforcement measures have, unsurprisingly, proven useless, resulting only in the criminalisation of more young people than virtually any other country in Europe.
According to research in the Lancet published yesterday, a 50p per unit minimum pricing policy would save around 2,900 lives a year and reduce costs to the health service by £270 million a year. So surely this is a policy at least worthy of serious consideration?
Clare McNeil, research fellow, ippr