Behind the hype of the alcohol price hike

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When the going gets tough, governments turn to drink.

At least, that's how it seemed last month when, in the space of a week, the Scottish government put forward firm proposals for tackling the nation's alcohol problem through Europe's first minimum pricing legislation. Chief medical officer Liam Donaldson, meanwhile, said Westminster should set an even higher minimum.

The media loves booze news and the story was illustrated more often than not by images of drunken young women (much more alarming than drunken men). There is some justness in the idea of regulating alcohol prices. In their ferocious competition for the weekly shop, supermarkets have indulged in an orgy of cost-cutting, using drink as a loss-leader to get people into their aisles. Front of store are multipacks of beer stacked high and sold below cost. Hidden away you'll find large plastic bottles of strong cider that work out cheaper than the posher brands of water. Will curbing this unacceptable face of retailing really help reduce alcohol harm?

Opponents of minimum pricing, including Gordon Brown (although he might change his mind), say it would punish the sensible majority of drinkers. Vote-catching, obviously, but they have a point.

There are some good things in the proposals, such as extra resources aimed at identifying and treating those most at risk. But the main thrust of the plan is not focused on those with problems. Its explicit aim is to reduce alcohol consumption across the whole population.

Yet it's abundantly clear who's suffering here. Alcohol Statistics Scotland 2009, which carries the facts and figures that are supposed to back up the Scottish government's strategy, above all demonstrates that drink problems are a class issue.

If you're unfortunate enough to find yourself in the poorest fifth of the population you are six times more likely to wind up in hospital with an alcohol problem than someone in the richest fifth. And the poorest 40 percent of the population is five times more likely to die of alcohol than the richest 40 percent.

Is it that the poor are just a bunch of feckless drunkards? No. There's barely a dram of difference between rich and poor consumption, unless you're a poor woman, in which case you'll be drinking rather less than a rich woman. This suggests that only a small minority of working class people are drinking to the extent that it causes problems. Who are they? Probably not the tipsy young women in the pictures. They are more than twice as likely to be men, and more than twice as likely to be over 60 as they are to be under 24.

The sometimes troublesome public excesses of young working class people out enjoying themselves on a Saturday night shrink in comparison to the chronic alcohol problems suffered out of sight of the cameras.

By far the most common alcohol-related diagnoses, 71 percent of the total, are "mental and behavioural disorders". This is a rather vague category but it does conjure up a picture of frontline hospital staff dealing with patients with a tangle of problems, of which excessive drinking is one strand.

Tackling poverty, deprivation and the "mental and behavioural disorders" that occur as a result is the answer. Demonising drink and hoping to reduce alcohol harm by cutting everyone's consumption is not going to help. But that's the theory underlying government alcohol policy across much of the world.

Drink sales follow the ups and downs of the economy like most other things, and as the recession takes its toll we might well see overall consumption decline but drink problems rise as poverty increases. As it is, the trend is that overall alcohol consumption in Britain is going down.

And the supermarkets? Closing the gap with bar prices might help encourage people to do more of their drinking in the social environment of a pub. But it's unlikely the big stores will be too bothered about it. Minimum pricing will only create a level playing-field between them and, as a report commissioned by brewer SAB Miller points out, they could see it as an opportunity to improve profit margins at a time when that's not easy to do.

Cheap alcohol isn't always an issue. Only 20 years ago concerns that beer in pubs was too expensive prompted legislation for the most radical restructuring of the industry since 1830.

It didn't work, but it illustrates the contradictory attitude the state has towards drinking. On the one hand it wants to encourage the drinks industry to make more money - taking its cut in the form of duty and taxes. On the other hand, it wants a productive workforce. The moral panics around "binge drinking" express the nagging worry that the working classes might be enjoying themselves just a little too much. After all, they have to get up for work in the morning.