The last two British Governments have promised to increase tax on super-strength alcohol sold in supermarkets for “below cost” prices. But none of Britain’s governments seem able to stand up to the objections of the tabloid media and the lobby of the powerful alcohol industry.
The latest promise came just after Christmas 2011 when David Cameron, Britain’s Prime Minister, was reported to be considering imposing a “super strength alcohol” tax and over-ruling his cabinet colleagues – who favor the alcohol industry’s approach: self regulation. Cameron’s government gave themselves a deadline of February 2012 to come up with new rules that could put a minimum price on super-strength alcohol. A similar tax was successfully introduced in Scotland last year.
The Daily Telegraph led the charge against the proposal by accusing the government of “nanny statism”, a charge that will sting as this was a commonly used slogans against Britain’s previous, Labour, government. In an editorial published on the 28th of December 2011 the Telegraph said “Britain’s problem with alcohol is not due to price, but a culture of excessive consumption.”
But is Britain a nation of excessive drinkers?. Global statistics on alcohol consumption are compiled by the World Health Assembly and the most recent figures show that Britain has a abstinence rate of 12%, compared to Luxembourg where only 2% don’t drink.
Writing in the Lancet, Talhi Burki says “in many nations – Germany is one example – 10% of drinkers are responsible for 50% of consumption. Needless to say, these are the individuals at risk of chronic illness.”
“Britain doesn’t have a culture of excessive consumption,” says Dominic McCann of Castle Craig Hospital, a leading European rehab clinic, “it has a sub-culture of excessive consumption. UK consumption rose by 1.5 litres (pure alcohol per year) between 1980 and 2000 and we can be sure that it was the ‘sub-culture’ which absorbed this increase in their blood streams. Liver disease in UK has increased by 300% over the last 15 years.”
Britain’s sub-culture of binge drinking is well known and highly destructive. Every Friday night emergency rooms across the land fill up with people who have been slashed, beaten and raped. “the weekend sees UK town centers strewn with the debris of drunken nights out,” writes Talhi Burki, “heavy episodic – or binge – drinking is behind most of the injuries that comprise a third of the disease and disability burden attributable to alcohol.”
But there is an equally strong tradition of moderate pub-drinking in Britain and no government wants to antagonize this group by increasing tax on alcohol. The current tax proposal is to increase taxes on super-strength alcohol being sold in supermarkets, especially cider, without effecting the price of a pint. But the media are skeptical, suggesting that any new tax on alcohol would be steadily increased?
In Western Europe there has been a general fall in alcohol consumption over the last two decades, but not in Britain. Thomas Babor of the University of Connecticut explains why: “A lot of traditional measures that were effective in limiting alcohol consumption up until the 1970s – pub licensing hours, and restrictions on the number and density of outlets – were abolished or relaxed”.
Two other factors have ensured that alcohol consumption continues to rise in UK: alcohol has become cheaper (tax on alcohol has not risen with inflation) and the alcohol industry’s big budget marketing campaigns have succeeded in portraying drinking as glamorous.