Monday 29 April 2019

Moving the goalposts for minimum pricing

Scotland's public health minister, Joe Fitzpatrick, has written about minimum pricing as its first anniversary approaches...

A year after Scotland made history we are a healthier country

The headline is untrue - or, at least, unproven - but, to be fair, he doesn't actually say that. He says:

A year on, minimum pricing is setting a new benchmark in creating the healthier and fairer Scotland we all want to see.

Which doesn't mean very much.

The article is only of interest as an exercise in expectation management. Fitzpatrick is preparing the public for the news that alcohol consumption rose in the first year of minimum pricing, as now seems very likely:

In June, we will see the first meaningful analysis of sales which will tell us the short-term effect on the volume of units sold. After 5 years there will be an overarching expert evaluation of the impacts of minimum pricing, and whether it has slowed the growth in alcohol consumption, or even helped reduce consumption in the long-term. 

Note how he is presenting a fall in alcohol consumption as a best case scenario - the icing on the cake if it happens. This is very different to the confident claims of a 3.5 per cent decline in the first year.

By presenting the policy as a way to slow down the growth in alcohol consumption, Fitzpatrick is moving the goalposts. He is also rewriting history. Alcohol consumption has not been growing. It is at a twenty year low.

In addition to lowering expectations of success, he is getting the Scottish public ready for the inevitable price rise - which the 'Liberal' Democrats are already demanding...

When we set the price at 50p we struck a balance between public health and social benefits, and intervention in the market. I believe it’s proportionate. This initiative is still in its infancy having been in place for just a year and as time goes on we’ll continue to keep the level it is set at under review to determine if an increase is necessary in the short-term.

And then we get the usual stuff about there being no 'magic bullet'. It's the same thing we heard after the sugar levy began, after plain packaging began and after ever other ineffective nanny state policy takes effect...

There is no magic bullet, no single action that will stop alcohol abuse. That’s why we’ve taken a range of action to reduce the availability, attractiveness and affordability of alcohol. 

No one thinks that there is one policy that will eradicate a complex problem, but, as with the sugar tax, we should be able to expect a noticeable improvement from a policy that costs us many millions of pounds. That doesn't seem to be happening and so the goalposts are being moved and all the grand promises are gradually being buried.

There was never any chance of minimum pricing being repealed. If it fails, its failure will be used as an excuse to raise the price and add a range of new taxes and bans to the mix. 

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