It is no surprise that the suggestion by the Chief Medical Officer of a minimum price for alcohol has caused such a stir. Most of us drink so we feel we have a stake n the debate. Alcohol abuse is an important and visible social policy issue. Policy analysts will be fascinated by the relative merits of various ways of trying to reduce consumption. And, of course, it opens up again the argument between the advocates of Government paternalism and the critics of the ‘nanny state’.
Some people may have spotted that even in this summary I have given the argument a subtle tilt. When I talk about ‘Government paternalism’ it suggests a group of people in Whitehall imposing their will. But in a democracy Government is there to carry out the wishes of the people, so really the question is whether one section of opinion in society should be able to impose its wishes on another. Putting it this way makes the issue seem different. Alcohol related crime and disease costs the country billions, while drunkenness can tear families apart and makes city centres into no go areas. So why shouldn’t society act to try to reduce the harms of alcohol abuse, especially as no one it talking about banning access to booze just making it slightly more expensive.
The alcohol industry, which was in my experience one of the most disingenuous lobbies I had ever to deal with in Government (always banging on about voluntary codes but then doing virtually nothing to enforce them) says the Donaldson proposal is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. But, it isn’t just the alcoholics and the drunks we need to worry about. As I understand it, a growing proportion of alcohol related illness is the result of routine over consumption - a few cans of lager in front of the TV or a bottle of wine every night.
The minimum price idea is at least worthy of closer consideration. And I don’t understand why the major parties have already briefed their opposition (well, actually, I do understand the politics but I don’t approve). This is a classic example of an issue on which if the debate feels like it’s the Government versus the public it will be suspicious and polarised. It would be better if ministers kept an open mind and, perhaps, advocated something like a citizens’ jury to weigh up the options. After all, apart from a few head banging libertarians, this is hardly a matter of ideology; we already regulate and tax alcohol.
So, for once, I thought James Purnell got it wrong when he seemed to rule out the Donaldson proposal yesterday. As far as I know James doesn’t have particular expertise in public health so to react so firmly suggests he sees this as a matter of principle rather than evidence. But where is the principle? Would it apply just as strongly if the proposal was for a forty pence per unit minimum, or thirty, or twenty? If the Government appoints respected people like Sir Liam Donaldson to senior posts, surely they should at least listen to his arguments before rushing to judgement.
Which makes me an ungrateful and arguably hypocritcal person. Because on Friday night I was in East London at a party hosted by James Purnell and friends. And, yes, before you ask, while James himself was the perfect host, I did drink a little bit too much. The bar was free for the first few hours but, to be honest, after the week I’d had I don’t suppose charging me fifty pence a glass would have acted as much of a deterrent.
On a related note, we have Alan Johnson talking at the RSA on Thursday morning on the subject of public health - you can find more information about the event here.