British government wants booze price hike

Alcohol lines shelves in an Off License in Brixton in London, England.

Alcohol abuse is one of the U.K.’s most intractable problems. About a quarter of the British population is believed to be drinking to excess and it’s costing the country a packet. The state-run National Health Service spends more than $4 billion a year dealing with the effects of binge drinking and the  overall economic cost -- in booze-related crime, accidents and lost productivity -- has been put at a staggering $35 billion.

Home Office Minister Damien Green says cheap booze is largely to blame. He says the most obvious manifestation is the epidemic of public drunkenness: “City centers on a Friday and Saturday night often become a vision of hell," he says. “And a lot of this is fueled by very cheap, very strong alcohol.”

So he has come up with a plan: a minimum price for alcohol.

Some British supermarkets sell a can of beer for as little as 32 cents. The government is proposing a big, mandatory price hike so that a can of strong lager would cost at least $2 50. The minimum for a bottle of wine would be $6.75. Supermarket manager Guy Mason is one of many retailers that oppose the plan.

“The idea of putting a minimum unit price on alcohol," he says, “is going to punish the majority of our customers that drink responsibly just to try and affect the behavior of a small number of people who misuse alcohol."

But the government insists that it is not a small number of misusers; it’s almost a quarter of the population. 

And the government claims that its minimum price  would cut alcohol consumption by 4.3 percent. The number of crimes would fall by 24,000 a year. And there would be 2,000 fewer deaths.

The plan is likely to be challenged in the courts.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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