On laying down your liver for your country

Human Behaviour 101: Raising taxes on alcohol will not reduce consumption

Britain’s Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, is calling for taxes to be raised on alcohol in order to combat binge drinking. Hewitt is thinking principally of the “alcopops” consumed largely by teenagers.

Where is the evidence of a correlation between tax and alcohol consumption? As far as I know, there isn’t any, and Patricia Hewitt’s proposal is a non-starter. The Treasury has already rejected the call, saying that tax is “too blunt an instrument” to be used to tackle young people’s drinking habits. And they’re absolutely right on this, even if the state does see binge drinkers as patriots who lay down their livers for their country.

As for comparative drinking cultures, take Norway and Sweden. In these countries the tax on alcohol is extremely high, yet the people drink like fish. Public behaviour associated with alcohol consumption may be a little different to city and small-town Britain, but this is more down to culture and temperament.

From an article published some years ago in Helsingin Sanomat:

“Finns … have slipped closer towards a European attitude to drink – a couple of glasses on a weekday evening after work – without totally surrendering their proud national traditions of getting legless on Friday and Saturday nights and then going jogging the next morning to shake off the cobwebs.”

This may be specifically about Finland, but it applies to Scandinavia as a whole.

Comparing the Nordic countries, as I have through living in and travelling around the region, I’d say that binge-drinking culture exists in all of them, despite wide differences in the price of alcohol. Denmark is the cheapest, and Sweden the most expensive. If money is an issue, Scandinavians simply brew and distil their own booze, whatever the legal situation, and this doesn’t show up in official statistics.

This call for tax increases is an annual ritual in which the health lobby claims that it’s the best way to save people from themselves. Only it’s complete rubbish, and the lobby is certainly not representing a consensus among physicians. I’ve lost count of the number of times my (GP) mother has said that the British Medical Association hasn’t a clue what it’s talking about when it comes to social policy.

And then there’s the medical journal The Lancet (free registration required), which also calls for alcohol taxes to be increased. Recall when a few years ago the editors of The Lancet made complete arses of themselves when they called for a ban on tobacco. Absolute idiocy, just like the proposals coming from our schoolteacher caricature of a Health Secretary.