Problem drinking is not as easy to solve as Iain Duncan Smith believes, says Kevin Hawkins
"Nothing needs reforming as much as other people's habits," observed Mark Twain, an axiom that Iain Duncan Smith has clearly taken to heart. Price competition in alcoholic drinks in supermarkets is, he says, "as close to immoral as you can get" and is directly "creating alcoholics". No mention of happy hours and all the other incentives to increase volume sales in pubs and clubs, but that's a minor quibble.
No doubt IDS is as fed up as the rest of us with the juvenile and violent behaviour induced by excessive drinking. But emotion is a dangerous driver of policy, especially when addressing complicated social problems. If alcohol abuse is both a cause and consequence of our "broken society" which I for one think it is an appropriate policy response needs a cool head and a dispassionate analysis of the evidence.
Contrary to popular belief, we are not the biggest topers of Europe. The only measurement on which the UK compares badly is the proportion of 16-year olds who have admitted being drunk in the past year. So maybe we should be harder on them. In some EU countries the police reaction to young people over-indulging is immediate and vigorous. The message behave yourself, or else seems to have got through.
By contrast, much-quoted solutions such as minimum pricing and banning promotions are non-starters as they conflict with competition law. Similarly, any informal agreement between retailers to refrain from "irresponsible" or "immoral" promotions, ie. maintain prices at a higher level than they would otherwise be, is likely to be seen as collusion by the OFT and penalised accordingly. Repealing "24-hour" drinking is another irrelevance, as most outlets don't open for anything like 24 hours. Nor is a general prohibition on selling alcohol below cost likely to have much effect.
In successive reports, the Competition Commission has looked at the experience of other countries that have tried to ban below-cost selling and found that such attempts have failed.
So what's left? Higher duties, as IDS wants? That's a near-certainty anyway as the next government struggles to balance the books but not, one suspects, to the point where diminishing returns set in. So determined boozers won't be put off.
The reality is that, for many teenagers, getting drunk is a cultural norm. Start from there, IDS.
Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant.