I see minimum pricing as a sister policy to plain packaging in that it will give the government an unprecedented right to impose its will on the free market. Sin taxes and health warnings are one thing. Having the government setting prices and seizing control of a product's entire packaging is quite another. These are powers that the government has never had in our peacetime history (correct me if you can think of an example to the contrary) and they are being taken without any kind of rational debate. The binge-drinking 'epidemic' is a modern moral panic which will baffle sociologists for years to come, and the packaging of cigarettes would be trivial if it were not such a blatant trampling of private and intellectual property.
As James Nicholls wrote recently:
That it is the Tories, rather than Labour, who have been first to throw their weight behind minimum pricing is remarkable enough: it is, after all, a concept entirely at odds with free market principles.
Indeed so. Same old Labour whoever gets voted in. Our health secretary is a man who said, not so very long ago, that: "All our decisions must be evidence-based, and on that basis, we do not currently support an introduction of minimum pricing." Our Prime Minister is a man who said: "The era of big, bossy, state interference, top-down lever pulling is coming to an end." Our Deputy Prime Minister said: "For too long, laws have taken away you freedom, interfered with your life and made it difficult for businesses to get on."
It counts for nothing. This is a government that has already alienated the medical establishment (or, at least, has alienated the noisy element that makes it into the newspapers). Do they imagine they will get them on-side by throwing them this bone? Can they really imagine that the BMA will be satisfied with a bone? They are, as Mark Littlewood says, like the man who lets the alligator eat his arm in the hope that it will leave the rest of him.
Nothing—absolutely nothing—is more certain than that within weeks, perhaps days, of minimum pricing being introduced, you will hear the usual shrill voices complaining that 45p, or 50p, is mere "pocket money" and the minimum price should be 60p, 70p, 80p, £1 a unit. What hope can we have that the government will stand up to them then?
Nicholls makes a pertinent point about the pace of neo-prohibitionist activity in the 21st century:
Equally remarkable, however, is the sheer speed with which the idea of minimum unit pricing has moved from the margins to the centre of alcohol policy debates.
Funny to think that neither minimum pricing nor plain packaging were on the political radar at all five year ago. They were not even on the radar of our esteemed 'public health professionals'. There was a time when social reformers would work for decades to campaign for their causes. Today, we have two laws which will fundamentally change the government's role in the free market being nodded through in the blink of an eye.
The process of taking a policy from brainstorm to statute book has been sped up enormously by the rise of fake charities and the effective exclusion of public opinion from what is laughably called 'civil society'. Policy-making in Britain today is a closed shop with the self-described public health groups given the top seat at the table. This is, as Phil Mellows points out in a must-read blog post, is the triumph of 'medical temperance'.
What is medical temperance? It differs from 'gospel temperance' in that it does not seek to educate or persuade, only to legislate. But its goals of reducing availability and raising prices are in every way identical to the temperance groups of nineteenth century Britain. They said then, as they say now, that they are not prohibitionists and I believe most of them. What we are seeing is something more akin to 1870s England than 1920s America. As Laura Schmidt said last month:
What doesn't work is all-out prohibition -- that's very old-school and often creates more problems than it solves.
What does work are gentle "supply side" controls, such as taxing products, setting age limits and promoting healthier versions of the product
You remember Laura Schmidt? She's the one who wants sin taxes on sugary products because her Californian brain tells her they are "toxic". And so it goes on.
Every increase in price, as J. S. Mill said, is a prohibition to those who cannot afford to pay it. If minimum pricing is tabled in England, it will be another little prohibition to make the well-heeled elite feel better about themselves while the rest of us pay.
An exceptionally crummy and one-sided article in The Guardian suggests that minimum pricing is a done deal.
Just hours after the revelation that alcohol has fuelled a 25% increase in liver deaths in the past decade, [you see how it works? See yesterday's post for details about this "revelation" - CJS] Downing Street has finally given health experts what they have long clamoured for – and what health secretary Andrew Lansley has resisted – a minimum price per unit.
The Telegraph is reporting that the minimum price would be set at 40p. This would have very little effect on the price of the vast majority of drinks and so is likely to displease libertarians and nannies in equal measure. My guess is that they will begin at 40p, win the argument because no one really cares about a bottle of wine being at least £3.60, and then jack the price up when the Bill gets to its final reading.
The EU will still over-rule it though, and we should send the BMA the bill for all the parliamentary time they wasted. Just need to hope that the EU doesn't collapse until all this is finished with.