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Dominic Walsh, The Times, opinion

Published:  09 April, 2009

The ink had barely dried on my first column a few weeks ago, on the subject of the demonisation of drink, when the Chief Medical Officer added fuel to the fire by launching a call for minimum pricing.

Although the idea was firmly stamped on by Gordon Brown before Sir Liam Donaldson had even had a chance to open his mouth, it is clearly a subject that will not go away - not least north of the border.

I have to confess that, on a very basic level, I am not averse to the idea of minimum pricing. I firmly believe that some of the very cheapest supermarket deals on alcohol, particularly on lager, contribute to the binge drinking tendencies of the youthful minority, while at the same time persuading a fair few drinkers to eschew the pub in order to consume cheap booze at home.

There is no doubt that, with the exception of the very cheapest deals offered by the likes of JD Wetherspoon, the vast majority of pub prices would be unaffected by the proposed 50p a unit price level recommended by Sir Liam. The result would be a narrowing of the yawning chasm between supermarket prices and the cost of a drink in pubs and clubs.

Luminar boss Steve Thomas, a man who is not easily ignored, is firmly of the opinion that minimum pricing is the only way of tackling the supermarket issue, although he believes a lot more work needs to be done before the right price is arrived at.

Compelling though those arguments are, I cannot bring myself to support the idea of minimum pricing. For a start, it would at a stroke revive the cross-Channel smuggling that had pretty much disappeared thanks to a combination of the strength of the euro and the deals available in supermarkets. I don't think anybody wants to see a return of those days.

Another problem I have with the use of a single per-unit price is that it does not actually target problem drinks or problem drinkers, but is an indiscriminate attack on the majority of people who enjoy alcohol responsibly. The real ale drinker is hit just as much as the consumer of high-strength cider sold in three-litre PET bottles. How can that be right? I might have had more sympathy for the idea if it had included a tiered system based on ABV that incentivises lower-strength consumption.

A blanket minimum pricing system would also play havoc with the normal commercial imperatives that dictate retailers' and suppliers' pricing strategies. A minimum set at 50p a unit would mean a bottle of wine costing at least £5, whereas almost 60 per cent of wines purchased in the off-trade sell for less than £4.

What about the knock-on effect on wines that currently sell at £5 and above? Does the retailer sell different quality wines at the same price or maintain the differential, thereby possibly hitting sales of more expensive wines?


But by far the most compelling argument against Sir Liam's proposal is that the correlation between price and consumption is far from proven. The homeless may have little or no money but when did that stop them buying alcohol? 


And it can hardly be said that France, where the average price of a bottle of wine is £1.40, has a binge drinking problem. Sir Liam's desire to reduce alcohol abuse is understandable, but what is needed is a cultural change based on better education.


The same is true of the other big challenge facing the Chief Medical Officer - obesity. Or perhaps he is drawing up plans for a minimum price for a Big Mac and Large Fries?

Dominic Walsh writes about the drinks and hospitality industry for The Times