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Alcoholism and drink prices

by Frank Schnittger Mon Jan 10th, 2022 at 08:31:05 PM EST

Like nearly all countries, Ireland has an addiction problem with alcohol, smoking, prescribed drugs, illicit drugs and gambling the chief offenders. Many drugs addicts are "polydrug" abusers, consuming alcohol, prescribed drugs or whatever illicit drugs come to hand fairly indiscriminately. Sometimes the addiction is as much social as physiological or neurological. Sometimes the motivation is as much self-medication or self-harm as pleasure.

The Irish government has just introduced "Minimum Pricing" for alcohol for retail outlets. This will increase the minimum price of (for example) a bottle of wine from €5 to €7.40.

Many aspects of the legislation I can agree with, such as the ban on multipack or 2 for 1 promotions designed to increase purchases beyond what the consumer originally intended to buy. However the minimum pricing itself I think a poorly thought out measure, and so I had a letter published by both the Irish Times and the Independent saying the following:


Had Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe chosen to put extra duty on alcoholic drinks in the last Budget, few could have objected. The extra tax revenue could have gone to fund our health services.


Instead, the Government has chosen to force retailers to increase their margins on cheaper drinks. Not only have they done so in compliance with the law, but my local supermarket has increased the prices of mid-range alcoholic drinks as well - presumably to maintain the price differential between mid-range and budget brands. Only the most expensive brands have been spared a price increase.

This will increase inflation, which is already at very high levels for hard-pressed consumers, and also serves to increase the profits of already very profitable supermarket chains and other retailers.

It hits the less well-off disproportionately while leaving the well-heeled and their top-of-the-range beverages untouched.

A duty increase would at least have increased prices across the board, but the Government has again chosen to protect the rich at the expense of the hard-up.

As a result I was asked to contribute to Liveline, a popular radio programme on the issue. My segment in the above linked programme is from 23 minutes to 29 minutes where I also included a comparison with Spain where alcohol prices are much lower, and yet their alcohol consumption per capita per annum is lower than Ireland's.

In my experience, alcohol consumption in Spain is more often as an accompaniment to food in family and social settings not conducive to binge drinking. I also tried to make the case that a government tax increase would have been more equitable and could have been used to raise funds for drastically under-funded addiction treatment services. I also expressed concern that the rise in alcohol prices could drive some addicts towards more harmful drugs.

From what I can see the evidence base for Minimum pricing reducing problem drinking is very limited indeed. Similar measures were only recently introduced in Canada, Scotland, and Wales and research on the outcomes has been very limited and contradictory to date. Several reformed alcoholics who appeared on the radio programme said that price was not a deterrent to their addiction and would not have changed their behaviour at the time.

My larger political concern is that minimum pricing will come to be seen as one more attack by the establishment on the young (who are more likely to consume cheaper brands). The government is already in trouble for its failure to ensure that affordable housing is available for young people, and of  course Covid restrictions on socialising have had a disproportionate effect on the young. I therefore responded somewhat waspishly to a letter published in the Irish Times by EUNAN McKINNEY. My (as yet unpublished) response is as follows:

In his rather haughty putdown of all who dare to question the equity of the Minimum Pricing legislation, EUNAN McKINNEY,  Head of Communications of the government funded Alcohol Action Ireland quango claims to be the only one concerned at the economic damage alcohol abuse causes.  He also criticises the alcohol industry for spending €100 Million on media and marketing support but fails to note that this figure is dwarfed by the government spend on the quango industry in this country.


He further claims that those with a low-risk engagement with alcohol will see hardly any change in their annual alcohol spend as they apparently don't consume the cheaper brands most effected by minimum pricing.  And yet he also claims that the least affluent drink less. So who is it who is buying all the cheap booze? Apparently, the government has performed the unique feat of targeting only the less discerning drinker. No doubt they will get their answer from less discerning voters.

It is important that alcoholism and excessive drinking does not come to be seen as an intergenerational issue and heavy handed interventions on the part of paid advocates for government policy are not helpful in this regard. I recall the youth rebellion of the 1960s (mainly the 1970's in Ireland) and the counter-culture it gave rise to. Alienating our younger people is not something we want to do especially at a time when, due to Covid-19, social solidarity and voluntary compliance with social distancing guidelines are more important than ever.

But this is a difficult area, and there are no clear cut answers. I would welcome contributions from people with experience of the situation in other countries.

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Alcopops come to mind. Back in the days of 2004 (I'm starting to feel old) a special tax (+1 per bottle) was introduced to reduce the consumption of a product that is clearly targeted at teenagers. Sugar + carbonic acid accelerate the uptake of alcohol and make the beverage tastier to people who usually don't partake. It was seen as a sort of 'gateway' to alcohol abuse. Results are mixed. Consumption alongside tax revenue has sharply declined. No one knows whether it's really because of the tax. Overall alcohol consumption among youths has not declined.

The general problem of addiction isn't solved by that. But I'd say special tax on sugary drinks that's also alcoholic (= Pigout tax), why not?

Schengen is toast!

by epochepoque on Tue Jan 11th, 2022 at 08:42:35 AM EST
Of course I'm wrong: alcohol consumption in Germany among teenagers has declined markedly. But it is a result of culture and education. Whether the tax itself helped or the debate around the tax...?

Schengen is toast!
by epochepoque on Tue Jan 11th, 2022 at 08:45:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Surprisingly, according to these figures, Germany's alcohol consumption has been rising and is now one of the highest in the world, having overtaken that of Ireland.

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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Jan 11th, 2022 at 05:37:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Most traditional alcoholic drinks - beer, wine, spirits- (and smoking!) are an acquired taste and not initially pleasant to drink for kids growing up. If they persevere with acquiring the taste it is often because it is perceived as a badge of adulthood to be seen to do so. Alcopops were a wheeze to get around that, tasting much like fizzy drinks with a kick. They were designed to increase the uptake of alcohol amongst people who otherwise wouldn't drink.

I have no problem with banning or taxing the hell out of them. They seem to have gone out of fashion perhaps because of an association with under age alcohol abuse - which reversed the psychology of drinking being a manly or adult thing to do. Mind you I would tax sugary drinks full stop!

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Jan 11th, 2022 at 11:43:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
An interesting experiment
New Zealand will ban the sale of tobacco to its next generation, in a bid to eventually phase out smoking.

Anyone born after 2008 will not be able to buy cigarettes or tobacco products in their lifetime, under a law expected to be enacted next year.

"We want to make sure young people never start smoking," Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verall said.

But I imagine the legislation will not outlive the current government... (long may it reign)

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Wed Jan 19th, 2022 at 04:52:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Finland has never had neither minimum or maximum pricing, but very high taxes when alcohol has been legally available.

Between 1890 and 1970 there was either prohibition or a permission required for purchase of alcohol, which according to the latest understanding is the main cause behind unfortunate habit of binge drinking - you drink as fast as you can whatever you have managed to get your hands on.

In 2004 the alcohol tax was reduced by 30% with the consequence of health issues and deaths in the alcohol dependent +50 age group. Alcohol consumption in the younger generations has been decreasing for the last couple of decades, and cheaper alcohol had no perceivable effect on that.

Since 2008 the tax has been rising again, and currently covers 120-130% of the total costs to society from alcohol abuse (health issues, job absence, violence etc), so government after government has found it difficult to change the policy radically. Even under strong pressure from EU.

One set of experts say that high taxes keep the general consumption down, and accordingly the heavy drinkers drink less, too. Another set says that the policy should focus on identifying heavy drinkers and people with addiction and helping them instead of "punishing" everyone. So far the policymakers have been listening to the first set.

by pelgus on Tue Jan 11th, 2022 at 10:38:22 AM EST
According to these figures, Finland has quite a high consumption of alcohol - higher than Spain or Greece - although one wonders whether the latter figures include wine consumed and traded locally without going through some state control mechanism.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Jan 11th, 2022 at 05:40:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's been going down since 2007, number for 2020 was 9,2 liters of 100% alcohol per +15 year citizen. The number for 1996 on that list contains only officially purchased alcohol - the actual number was 10,6 liters or so.

I wouldn't be surprised if Finns drank more than Spanish or Greeks. We drink mostly at home, but not with meals. Half of the consumption is beer, mostly on weekends and especially during the summer months.

But mainly personal anecdotal evidence from my adventure with a group of Spanish and Italian students in Madrid some 20 years ago: at the end of a long night  two of them told me they were really impressed that I showed no signs of being drunk after all the alcohol I had consumed and that they would be probably dead. I was a bit embarrassed since I indeed wasn't that drunk and merely felt just properly warmed up and all of a sudden felt like an old boozer :-)

by pelgus on Tue Jan 11th, 2022 at 06:19:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sweden has a long history of trying to manage rampant drinking in the population, going back to the 19th century when the combination of stills and potatoes is traditionally blamed for the country going on a decades long binge. Since then a a strong sobriety movement with a significant overlap with the socialist/labor movement has to a large extent set the agenda.

The prohibition referendum in 1922 was narrowly defeated with 51% against. Despite striking posters such as this:

Payday evening
Vote Yes.

Instead there was monopoly and rationing until 1955 when rationing was abolished. And taxes. We still have an alocohol monopoly, though rules on private import has been liberalised by the EU (in contravention to what was claimed about the exception when Sweden entered the union), though the last decades drinking has gone down, and youth drinking has been halfed since the 1980ies. Alcohol liberals often claim that drinking has gone down because of liberalisation, I think it is the other way around, liberalisation has been tolerated because it hasn't caused spikes in consumtion.

Swedish alcohol taxes are rather well accepted, even though home stills are still very much existing and brining home a lot of duty free is a national sport. Taxes are proportional to the amount of alcohol, so drinks with less then 2,25% alcohol has no alcohol tax, and then it is climbing. A 50 cl bottle of 5% alcohol (beer, cider etc) has a alcohol tax of about half a euro. While a 70 cl bottle of 40% alcohol (so whisky, vodka or similar) has a alcohol tax of about 14.5 euros. So a bottle of cheap booze starts around 20 euros.

by fjallstrom on Tue Jan 11th, 2022 at 01:50:13 PM EST
It is possible to brew an acceptable beer at 2,25% so the taxes wouldn't be too onerous for me. Wine being an imported product would be more expensive anyway. According to these figures, Sweden's alcohol consumption has increased by 50% - 1996-2016, but are still some way below Ireland and Spain. There appears to be a pattern of increased consumption in most countries over that period.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Jan 11th, 2022 at 05:34:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Most Swedish beers are, well not up to continental standards. Sweden isn't much of a beer or wine nation, it is part of the vodka belt.

According to Folkhälsomyndigheten, the peak consumtion was in 2004 at 10,5 litres, then a gradual declne to 8,5 litres in 2020. If we add the WHO numbers we get:
1996 6 litres
2004 10,5 litres
2016 9,2 litres
2020 8,5 litres

Between 1996 and 2004 was the year 2000, when the guarantees Sweden received on joining the EU expired and the much more limited rules on private import was voided, and the private import quota went from rather limited to functionally unlimited. If that had been clear in 1994, the sobriety movement would have been campaigning on the side of not entering the EU, and considering the slim margin - 52,8% in favor - Sweden probably wouldn't have joined.

by fjallstrom on Tue Jan 11th, 2022 at 10:06:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Is there any significant "Swexit" political movement?

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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Jan 11th, 2022 at 11:48:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Not really.

Last years number's regarding the membership was 16% opposed 58% in favour, while on the euro it was 64% opposed and 21% in favour.

There was a majority against EU membership in the first years of membership, so this is pretty much as popular as the membership has ever been.

The euro had pretty even numbers until the euro crisis when support plummeted to around 10%.

by fjallstrom on Thu Jan 13th, 2022 at 09:50:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In the USA treatment of alcohol is by state and I have lived under several different regimes. In my youth in Oklahoma anything stronger than 3.2% beer was illegal. My father's favorite sister, a spinster schoolteacher, lived in Coffeyville, KS, about 40 miles from our home in the now ghost town of Whizbang. We made a few trips a year to visit Aunt Laura and my father would bring home a fifth of 190 Proof, which he used mostly, as far as I knew, in 'hot toddies' for 'medicinal' use. Of course we all knew who the local bootlegger was. He had a peg leg. But my father didn't use him. This was the law until the mid '60s.

Will Rodgers had always said that Oklahomans would vote dry just so long as they could stagger to the polls. So in the early '60s Joe Cannon became the new head of the Highway Patrol and began a rigorous enforcement of alcohol laws. A year later legalization was on the ballot and voters went to the polls stone cold sober and voted for repeal of prohibition. But alcohol was not an issue for me at this time. I was far too studious.

In Aug of '63 I moved to Tuscon and enrolled in grad school. I turned 21 just before Christmas and duly obtained by 21st birthday card from the state. It was at that time that I began to join friends at a local bar, usually around 10 PM. We would take turns buying pitchers of 3.2 beer for the table and would drink until closing at 1 AM. To my memory stronger alcohol was not available legally, But Nogales, Mexico was only an hour away, though many came back instead with a case of XXX Oscuro beer.

I moved to California in Aug of '67 and quickly discovered that drinking beer at Tuscon rates in the humidity of Santa Monica just did not work. But high quality marijuana was regularly, if illegally, available and I was gifted a two ounce baggie of 'Ice Pack'. Though alcohol of any strength was available Cannabis became my drug of choice except for social occasions with wine or beer. Ten years or so later I discovered Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon of surprising quality in inexpensive half gallon jugs. I found it went well with weed when listening to music, but it detracted from my productivity.

We retired to Arkansas in 2006, but it had been decades since either alcohol or cannabis had been issues. Here liquor is available by county choice. Baxter is a growing county pitching itself as a retirement destination and is 'wet'. But, since 2018 and a bone infection in my foot which resulted in kidney damage alcohol has been out of the question.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Jan 11th, 2022 at 06:32:16 PM EST
Similarly in Colorado, a left-over from Prohibition was the three two beer law. Under that law, people aged 18-21 were restricted to 3.2% "near beer," and those over 21 were allowed regular liquor.

Note that 18-21 corresponds pretty closely to the age range for undergraduate college students. The result was that college towns had 3.2 bars and clubs that catered to the students.

An advantage of 3.2% beer is that it is tough to get really drunk on it. That gives foolish kids an opportunity to do grown-up stuff while staying fairly sober. Especially if it is doled out in 7 ounce pony cans!

My experience was that while it was possible for undergrads to get high octane distilled liquor if they worked at it, it wasn't really considered worth it. The punch at a frat party would be high test, but most of the time people just got Coors 3.2% beer. And lots of people over age 21 drank it voluntarily.

The age restrictions were rescinded a couple of decades ago. Grocery stores were limited to selling 3.2% beer until a few years ago; now they sell regular beer which has been tough on the liquor stores.

But then we legalized marijuana so it probably averages out.

by asdf on Thu Jan 13th, 2022 at 03:15:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
From the late 19th to late 20th centuries, New Zealand had a series of complicated boondoggles designed principally to frustrate the strong Temperance movement (I believe they came close to winning prohibition in 1919, until the votes of the still-overseas soldiers were counted).
One aspect was that licensing districts could vote for a three-way illogical choice for local alcohol availability : licensing, prohibition or state monopoly.

My district was "dry" in the 1970s, but winegrowers were able to sell their production. And not too bothered about the age of their clients; I was buying pretty awful wines from the vineyards of Dalmatian immigrants from the age of sixteen.
And since we lived on the fringes of Auckland city, which was "wet", Dad could get crates of beer, bottles of gin etc from wholesalers in town (but my parents were mainly wine drinkers at the time, even though the NZ wines really only reached an acceptable quality starting in the 1980s).

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Thu Jan 13th, 2022 at 02:48:34 PM EST
by Bernard (bernard) on Fri Jan 14th, 2022 at 08:42:05 PM EST


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