It’s no news that we like a drink in Britain. Not only do we drink more than our European neighbours, but we binge to such an extent that it burdens the NHS to a point of considering drunk tanks as a solution to the rowdy drunks clogging up hospitals. It’s this binge-culture that’s led the Scottish government to impose a 50p minimum price-per-unit on all alcoholic drinks.
The idea is that people will drink less if they lose access to bargain booze, which is simply not the case. People will drink regardless of how expensive you make it, especially if they’re among those who drink more heavily. Rather than curbing drinking rates, Scotland’s price floor is more likely to further tighten the budgets of people with already-tight budgets.
If we want to really kick Britain’s drink problem, there’s only one solution: Get people back to the pub.
This might seem somewhat contradictory; how could a longer line at the bar possibly reduce drinking rates? Well, it certainly wouldn’t stop Brits drinking, but it would stop us from drinking too much.
See, the crux of Britain’s drinking problem doesn’t lie in the amount we drink, necessarily, but in the way in which we do it. At the moment, the price of a pint in a pub is so high compared to a six-pack from the off-license, that many Brits begin their night out by heavily pre-drinking.
When we finally make it to the pub on a night out (if we make it there at all), many of us will probably already be on our fifth or sixth drink, if not more. It doesn’t take too many rounds from the bar to push British revellers over the edge and into dangerous levels of drunkenness.
But what if it cost less to get a round in at the local, than it would to stock-up on cans from the supermarket? Taking away the economic incentive to pre-drink could push more Brits to start their night at the pub, rather than someone’s living room.
Reducing the tax on alcohol purchased by pubs, bars, and restaurants relative to that purchased by off-licenses and supermarkets would enable local businesses to reduce their prices, bringing more people down the local and away from binging at home.
How, though, would this help curb binge drinking? Simply put, it removes the moral hazard which currently enables ludicrous levels of drinking.
When we buy a six-pack of beer or a bottle of spirit from the supermarket, it is entirely up to us how quickly we drink it. If the objective for a night out is to get as drunk as possible (which, for many, seems to be the case), or save as much money by not buying expensive pints at the bar, then many will aim to drink as much as they can before finally heading out. If someone passes out, just bung them in a taxpayer-funded ambulance and let the NHS sort it.
When we drink down the local bar, however, we are at the whims of the pub landlord. To him, rambunctious drunks are bad for business, especially once ambulances start being called and glasses start getting smashed.
A professional handler of drunks, the landlord knows when you’ve had too much; it’s a traditional part of the job to draw the cut-off line for customers. It’s this traditional landlord-customer relationship that keeps drinking to a safe level, and stops people passing out, fighting, or soiling the furniture.
What’s more, is that the customer is left wholly accountable to the landlord for any damage he or she causes. Break a glass? You pay for the replacement. Throw up on the upholstery? You pay for the cleaning. This way, the externalities of getting blackout drunk are internalised to the drinkers themselves – another incentive not to get blackout drunk.
If the government really wants to fix Britain’s drinking problem, it should focus on getting us back down the pub. Making alcohol more expensive won’t stop people drinking to get drunk, but putting the power back in the hands of the landlord might. Let’s bring back pubs, restore Britain’s social drinking culture, and put the binging behind us.