Nudging booze

By Babak Moussavi

Can state intervention solve British society's binge drinking problem?

The latest budget doesn’t appear to have gone down too well with the public. This seems true for both sides of the spectrum, with those on the right angry about the so-called ‘granny tax’, and those on the left upset about the drop in the top-rate of tax. Perturbed, the government has attempted to do something popular and announced, one day after the budget, that it would be taking a harder stand on binge drinking (though government spokesmen claim the timing was coincidental).

This is something that almost everyone would want to see. Indeed, for many people in the UK, the fact that Britain has this apparent problem whereas neighbouring European countries can ‘drink responsibly’ seems to be a source of quiet national embarrassment. The pub is part of British culture, but so is its unfortunate consequence. If only we could have the former, without the curse of the latter.

What is curious is the government’s chosen method for cracking down. This comes in the form of setting a minimum price for a unit of alcohol, thereby stopping supermarkets and other outlets from selling on discount deals. It is like a ‘sin tax’, as the price of a vice – drinking alcohol – is increased to a level that would, in theory, deter its consumption.

Assessing whether or not this method will work is not my main concern. For a government that claims in principle to be against the statist tendencies of its predecessor, this is a slightly bizarre policy to comprehend. For state intervention – in the market no less – in order to deter a certain form of behaviour that it disapproves of, is not in keeping with its other characteristics. Ostensibly, the aim is to reduce binge drinking. But binge drinkers – who, it is estimated, cost the NHS an eye-watering £2.7bn per year, and count for around one million annual hospital visits – are not the only people who will be affected. This is a blanket policy that will affect even the lightest of drinkers. Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether it will work, given that bars and clubs – where alcohol-fuelled fights happen – sell drinks at a much higher price than retail outlets.

Don’t get me wrong: binge drinking is a costly scourge on British society. It does seem unjust that £2.7bn of the taxpayers money is being ‘wasted’ on people who don’t drink responsibly. And it is worrying that one million violent crimes in the country are estimated to result from binge-drinking.

I am merely wondering how this government has come up with this crude policy of state intervention to try to ‘fix’ a problem in society. Edmund Burke, the godfather of conservatism, would presumably disapprove: he taught that change should come organically, not through the whims of government ministers. David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s government have just spent the past two years rolling back the state in most areas, such as welfare, and the provision of public services. None of the cabinet are instinctively statists, but are mostly ideologically ambivalent about the state’s role. So where did this paternalism come from?

I wonder whether the government considered more liberal alternatives, such as incentivising good behaviour. The Behavioural Insights Team (or ‘Nudge Unit’, after the ground-breaking book, Nudge) set up after the coalition took office, aims to see how incentives can be applied in public policy, to improve people’s decisions without impeding their free choices. What did they suggest I wonder? How about some simple things, like removing VAT on healthy drinks, such as pure fruit juices, thereby making them more attractive in supermarkets (which is where the minimum-pricing strategy will really have an effect)? Or financially rewarding landlords and bar managers whose establishments don’t send patrons to A&E on a regular basis (perhaps by declining to serve slurring customers, for a start).

The coalition’s policy may work. If it doesn’t, then perhaps this would not have been the wisest occasion to break conservative (or liberal) principles, and experiment with state intervention. But if it does, will Mr Cameron and his team accept that the state does in fact have the potential to advance social justice?

This policy seems to suggest they already think it does – even if they won’t admit it.

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