Friday 30 September 2011

Scotland prepares for failure

Tomorrow sees the start of new temperance laws in Scotland which will ban two-for-one offers and group discounts. The putative 'health' lobby has been blaming such offers for 'binge-drinking' for years. At midnight tonight, they will have a sudden change of heart and declare that these cheap deals were never the real problem and that much tougher action is needed to stem the mythical alcohol epidemic.

This is how it works. You might recall that selling alcohol below cost price was the Great Evil until the British government announced plans to stamp out the practice. At that point, the temperance lobby admitted that below cost sales were incredibly rare and demanded tougher action.

Prof Ian Gilmore, of the Royal College of Physicians, said in practice it was a "small step" with "no effect at all on the health of this nation". "If you go round the supermarket shops today, even where they're heavily discounted, they will not fall below this level."

Today, an editorial in The Scotsman accepts that Scotland's new laws will probably have no effect and opens the door to the inevitable tougher action.

It was a sound idea in theory, stopping an obvious economic incentive to over-indulge, but like so many ideas it appears it will not work in practice. As we report today, the supermarkets have already found a way around it by the devastatingly simple device of reducing the price of a bottle of wine, or packs of beer.

Public health professionals outwitted by the devastatingly simple? Say it ain't so!

Alas, it is so, and the BBC has noticed that Scotland borders a country that is marginally less of a nanny state.

Online deals are being used to get round new laws banning discounted promotions on alcohol in Scotland.

The legislation, which comes into force on Saturday, will stop deals such as two-for-the price-of one and group discounts on wine.

Tesco has emailed customers to say they can still get wine discounts because cases will be dispatched from a depot in England.

Damn you, open borders! Curse you, worldwide web! A plague of your house, free trade!

Those of you who have been dipping into my new book The Art of Suppression (reviewed by Dick Puddlecote here) might recognise the old 'cross border sales' problem from America's attempts to introduce statewide prohibition. In came the rum-runners and the mail order delivery companies.

Since it was not illegal for drinkers in dry regions to order alcohol by mail order from wet regions, local prohibition was primarily a problem for the poor who depended on the saloon. For the middle class, as Towne recalled, “it was mighty easy to give a dinner party with plenty of liquid refreshment. All one had to do, it seemed, was to lift the telephone receiver in Bangor, and ask that Boston send over a supply of whatever one desired.”

American politicians, under heavy pressure from the dry forces, responded to this 'loophole' by banning cross-border sales with the Webb-Kenyon Act in 1913. That Act ultimately pathed the way for national Prohibition seven years later. The Scots cannot do the same since it would certainly be viewed as a restraint of trade by the European Union.

And speaking of things the European Union won't allow...

The SNP will, of course, argue that the way to deal with this is for their flagship policy of a minimum price per unit of alcohol to be re-introduced, as it has promised to do in this session of Holyrood. In this the Nationalists are, again, right in theory - a minimum price, if set high enough, would probably reduce alcohol consumption.

"If set high enough" is the key phrase. The proposed 40p or 50p limit would make everyone a little poorer but it is very unlikely to lower overall consumption. The rich (doctors, politicians etc.) would not be affected at all and chronic alcoholics will never be put off by higher prices. Possibly a few moderate consumers might reduce their intake somewhat, but that would be a pyrrhic victory.

But there are two problems. The first, is the extra money goes to the retailers, mainly the big supermarkets...

When businessmen and politicians collude to screw the citizen, we should expect nothing less. But whilst it would be annoying to see supermarkets (or anyone) profit from an illiberal law, who makes the money is not the problem per se. The problem is that minimum pricing is a highly regressive policy that takes money from the poorest people in society.

Besides which, it won't work.

...and the second is that it is unlikely to stop those who crave alcohol from purchasing it.

Indeed. This is not a trifling flaw in a scheme that seeks to reduce alcohol-related harm. Why are we even talking about a policy that can't be introduced under EU law and, even it is could, won't bloody work?

The answer, I suppose, is that failure is the lifeblood of the neo-prohibitionists. They have to introduce laws that won't work. They'd be out of a job if the perceived crisis disappeared. Their motto is: "That didn't work, let's do it again." Same number of people smoking after the smoking ban as before it? Let's extend the ban. Graphic warnings had no effect? Try plain packaging. Higher prices lead to more smuggling? Make 'em even higher. Banning below-cost selling made no difference? Let's ban two-for-one deals. Banning discounts failed? Introduce minimum pricing.

This pattern is so familiar that The Scotsman can predict the response to the discount ban's failure before the law has even come into effect.

If these two measures, one coming into effect tomorrow, the other to be legisated for soon, do not succeed, the SNP might further its case for Scotland having powers over taxes levied on alcohol as a more logical, and fairer solution since the money raised would go to government

And so it continues.


wriggles said...

...failure is the lifeblood of the neo-prohibitionists..... They'd be out of a job if the perceived crisis disappeared. Their motto is: "That didn't work, let's do it again."

Pure gold. For people who like to point the finger at others perceived shortcomings, they have a curiously amoral view of their own.

timbone said...

It is so 'taking the piss' for some 'expert' (usually a woman) to suggest the following. If I drink one bottle of wine a week, and see a 2 for 1 offer, it means I will drink two bottles a week.

Now, if I drink two bottles a day, does this mean that I will drink four bottles a day? No. Whether I drink one bottle a month or ten bottles week, it just means that there is an easing of my cashflow.

However much I drink, it will not change. The only thing the 'expert' (usually a woman) can change is the health of my wallet, not my liver.

Leg-iron said...

Well... the more the price goes up, the more attractive homebrew becomes. Unregulated, no idea of the strength, no idea of what additional fermentation compounds are produced, homebrew.

Deadly rocket-fuel, in other words.

During my undergraduate years in microbiology, I blasted many a party with a well-trained yeast. Beer at wine strength isn't just possible, it's easy. And very cheap.

I know what I'm doing with these fermentations. Many don't, but the act of setting up a fermentation is a doddle. What comes out the other end could be, in the hands of the amateur, absolutely deadly.

Every Glasgow bedsit will soon have a plastic bin, barely disinfected, festering away with some vile brew or other.

Well done, Salmond. Well done indeed. See you, you tube, you're pure dead stupid, so y'are.

Leg-iron said...

Just realised something. Tesco will despatch from depots outside Scotland so they can continue their offers.

So will everyone else.

Therefore, if you work in any form of booze warehouse in Scotland, start looking for alternative employment.

Nobody is going to keep their depots in Scotland now.