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The perils of cheap alcohol

Alcohol abuse in the UK has been escalating for decades, contributing to crime, unemployment, illness and death. Last month, the government reported that alcohol-related deaths in the UK have doubled over the last 15 years to almost 9,000. One prominent factor in these increases is the price of alcohol, which has remained relatively stable despite increases in income over the years, and has thus become much cheaper in real terms. The cheaper it is, the more of it people consume, and the more ill effects are felt. The British Medical Association has thus called on the government to prohibit the cheap sale of alcohol, and in a surprising turn of events, the dominant supermarket chain, Tesco, has echoed this call.

Alcohol abuse is indeed a serious societal problem and is particularly acute in the UK. It is easy to forget how damaging it can be, and that it’s ready availability is no indication of safety: if alcohol were only recently invented, then as a highly addictive and intoxicating substance, it would almost certainly be banned. Whilst it would have to be just a small part of a larger strategy, a price rise would indeed help. For example, the Health Alcohol Alliance suggests that a 10% price rise would prevent up to a third of alcohol related deaths (i.e. 3,000 deaths per year), in addition to reducing the many other alcohol related problems. The simple matter of pricing can indeed be an important ethical issue.

This is a positive move by Tesco, admitting that as a large discount alcohol supplier, they bear some responsibility for the current situation. However, we need not lavish too much praise upon them, as this change would presumably be in their own interests, as well as society’s. It would end the current price war on alcohol between the major supermarket chains and thus profit them all alike. Indeed, they are only going to the government because anti-competition laws (rightly) prevent the supermarkets from organizing prices amongst themselves. Would they back an increased tax on alcohol content, which could have the same laudable effect, but give the profit to the government (and potentially back to the public) rather than to the supermarkets? It is doubtful. I would love to see more serious acceptance of responsibility by supermarkets even in those cases where it doesn’t help their bottom lines, but I’m not all that hopeful.

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