How minimum alcohol pricing suits middle class drinkers

The Scottish Government has announced plans for minimum alcohol pricing, making the claim that alcohol sales are at “an all-time high”.

This isn’t quite true, to judge by statistics from NHS Health Scotland, which show that sales were higher in 2009 (11.9 litres of pure alcohol per person) than they were in 2010 (11.8 litres). Nor is the precise claim that the Scottish Government goes on to make, which is that the gap between sales in Scotland and in England & Wales is greater than at any time since 1994 – it was in fact greater in 2009 (24 per cent) that it was in 2010 (23 per cent).

This isn’t a big deal, though it’s always disconcerting when claims can be falsified simply by a quick look at official reports. It’s certainly true that average alcohol consumption in Scotland is higher than it is south of the border. It’s also accepted that raising the minimum price at which alcohol can be sold will reduce consumption.

Update: NHS Health Scotland has contacted me to say this: "The statistic - 24 per cent gap between areas in per adult sales in 2009 - has been drawn from a report we published in July 2010. The on-trade estimates in this report were based on data from The Nielsen Company. However, we have since updated these figures using data from CGA strategy who provide on-trade estimates from a larger, more representative sample. The updated report was published in March 2011 and showed a 21 per cent difference between areas in 2009. A detailed description of the improved methods, including an analysis of the impact of the different methodologies on sales estimates, was outlined in an accompanying Appendix"

I'm happy to incorporate that explanation,and sorry I missed the appendix.

But the irony is that in Scotland the measure will bear hardest on alcoholic drinks whose consumption has been flat or has actually declined – spirits (3.6 litres pure alcohol sold per adult in 1994, 3.4 litres in 2010), cider (sales flat at 0.8 litres pure alcohol per adult over the period) and beer (4.6 litres in 1994, 4.0 litres in 2010) – while leaving wine, which is wholly responsible for the upward trend in total alcohol sales since 1994, relatively little affected.

To take the figures quoted by the Scottish Government in this press release,the cheapest brands of gin will increase in price by 70 per cent, while wine will increase by only 12 per cent, lager by 32 per cent, vodka by 42 per cent, and cider by a whopping 212 per cent.

I’ve summarised these in the table below, ordered by the severity of the percentage increases which are not given in the press release but are easily calculated. There are several curious features that strike me. Is it really possible to buy own-label gin at £6.95 for a 70 cL bottle in Scotland? The cheapest price I can find online is Lidl’s Club Gin at £7.79. For vodka, the prices look about right (Lidl’s Rachmininoff retails at £7.89, and is saluted by its own Facebook group as having the highest alcohol to price ratio, not to mention a number of useful cocktail recipes on the label.)


But is £12.00 really the right price for whisky? There are plenty cheaper than that, with Aldi asking a very modest £9.99, and Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco all offering their own-label Scotch at under £11.00. It rather looks as if the Scottish Government has bent the rules to make it look as if the increases in the price of its national drink will be modest. (The source for all these prices is Supermarket Own Brand Guide, found here.)

The other odd feature is that white wine at 12 % abv and red wine at 13 % abv are both quoted at a post-hike price of £4.20. That can’t be right. By my reckoning, the minimum price for 75 cL of a 12 % abv wine would be £4.05 and for a 13 % abv wine £4.39. Perhaps they’ve averaged them.

The truth is that there are very few wines at under £4.00 a bottle these days, so increases will in general be modest. For bulk purchases it may be possible to get quantity discounts, but these are due to end this October anyway.

The proportions of different drinks sold by off-licences at less than 45p a unit, summarised in the recent NHS Health Scotland report  make the point. While only 49 per cent of wine was sold at less than 45p a unit in 2010, 85 per cent of vodka, 81 per cent of cider and 70 per cent of “standard” beer came in at under this price.

So the effects of minimum pricing will generally be modest for the wine and whisky-drinking middle-classes, more severe for those who sing the praises of Rachmaninoff vodka, and eye-watering for those embarrassing people who drink cider on the streets.

That’s possibly what the majority in Scotland want, but it is a paradoxical outcome when NHS Health Scotland itself says: “The upward trend in total adult sales of pure alcohol in Scotland between 1994 and 2010 is wholly driven by the sharp rise in the sale of wine and is in fact blunted by the reduction in beer sales and slight reduction in spirit sales”. (p4 of the report linked to immediately above.)

If only the poor could learn to drink like the rich, they’d have very little to worry about in minimum alcohol pricing. As for manufacturers and retailers, they stand to make more money as a result of the measure