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The temperance fanatics keep up the pressure

Christ but I hate the BBC. This morning – probably out of some masochistic urge – I had the BBC Breakfast News channel on. I suppose my only defence is that I wanted to see those goals that England had contrived to score against that footballing colossus, Switzerland. Anyway, one item that came up was the issue of a proposed nationwide minimum drinking price for booze. There is already one in Scotland . There is a very high chance that such a minimum price, which flagrantly breaches the rights of sellers to flog their stuff at whatever price they think fit, will come into law.

Now it is no surprise, really, that the BBC tends to act as unwitting or even witting voice of government-favoured conventional wisdom, but the interviewer on this morning’s show who was giving a representative of the alcohol retailing industry a hard time was particularly bad. This is the guy I mean, by the name of Simon Jack. His biography states he worked as a decade as an investment banker, so presumably the BBC thinks this gives him a terrific insight into the world of business. Well, I don’t know about that – it may be that if this guy was any good at that job he’d be still working in the financial sector and earning zillions. Or maybe he realised that his heart was not in it and preferred to act as early-morning interrogator of businesses instead. This character seriously gets up my nose: a lot of his questioning is hectoring and demogogic, with questions such as: “But how can you defend your profit margins, Mr Evil Banker?”

This morning, he asked about how can the booze industry justify selling product at below cost of production. Surely, he said, this is designed to entice us poor moppets into buying lots of liquor and drinking ourselves into a stupor? Well, if Mr Jack had been awake during his college days while studying some economics, he’d realise that firms routinely sell some items at such cheap prices, even below production costs, to encourage a new market, whether it be for booze, cars or whatever. Free samples and all that. But obviously such pricing policies could not occur indefinitely: firms wish to make a profit. It was particularly weak for the industry lobby man not to state as much, and to assert that the industry is entitled to set its prices how it wants, and that anyway, why should not people be able to buy at prices mutually agreeable to them and the sellers – the vast majority of alcohol consumers do not turn into George Best or Oliver Reed and do not vomit over the pavement. But of course the BBC now endlessly repeats the charge that cheap drink is turning our city centres into beery nightmares and therefore, the rest of us should have to pay more for whatever is deemed to be causing the problem.

The BBC is leading the way as a news organisation that constantly hammers the booze industry, just as, in times past, happened to the tobacco industry. And the BBC Breakfast show, with its mix of hard news and what is a lot of fluffy, lifestyle features with lots of chats on the sofa, is a particularly persistent channel for this sort of temperance advocacy. In some ways, with its red sofas and pretend air of jollity in the morning, it is far more dangerous in this regard than snarling Jeremy Paxman in the evenings. At least you can usually switch channels to a late-night movie and watch Clint or whoever blowing bad people to glory.

21 comments to The temperance fanatics keep up the pressure

  • Hugh Mascetti

    Couldn’t agree more – especially about the smiley sofa-sitting “temperance” advocacy being the most dangerous sort.

    However, though it is not your fault and I am complaining about the theft of a word that happened at least a hundred and fifty years ago, I must have a whinge about the misuse of the word “temperance”, which should mean something like “moderation” or “avoiding extreme behaviour”, to mean those who advocate either forbidding alcohol or restricting its consumption by law. Properly speaking, a “temperance fanatic” ought to be an oxymoron.

    OK, pet hate venting over now!

  • The BBC will end up driving people to ferment (and, moreover, distil) their own. It is not hard.

    The £5-a day-habit will become the £150-a-day-habit, just like drugs.

    Fermenters and distillers in the “private sector” (for by then all “legal” alcohol will be State-generated) will charge according to risk, just as with “drugs”.

  • Pollo

    proposed nationwide minimum drinking age for booze

    You mean price, not age.

    There is already one in Scotland

    No there isn’t.

  • llamas

    Just to state the bleedin’ obvious, namely, that all these sorts of proposals will have the effect (intended or otherwise) of only curbing “excessive” drinking by poor people. Anyone wealthy enough to be using mid-range alcohol to become drunk and obnoxious will not be affected at all by these proposals.

    In other words, getting knee-walking drunk is fine as long as you’re middle-class and doing it on Dewars or an impudent little Cotes-du-Rhone. It’s only those nasty, working-class proles whose drinking we want to curb. Think for a minute about where this sort of motivation will lead/has led.

    The US has perhaps the cheapest available alcoholic beverages in the world. You can get really stupid for less then the Federal minimum hourly wage, and completely incomprepudible for the national average hourly wage, and you don’t have to drink Wild Irish Rose or Night Train to do it, either. And yet the US simply doesn’t suffer from the widespread public-order issues related to overconsumption of alcohol that seem to be becoming the norm in the UK.

    Because it’s not the price that is the problem.



  • Johnathan Pearce

    Pollo, my mistake on the age point. I meant price (doh).

    The Scottish Parliament has already voted on legislation about this, according to the BBC linked item, so I am not sure if your rebuttal stands. It looks pretty certain that such a move is shortly about to take effect.

  • Laird

    A curious turn of events.

    In the US, when we (the royal, governmental “we”, of course!) want to discourage some legal activity we impose sumptuary taxes. Thus we have heavy federal and state taxes on cigarettes, alcohol, even gasoline (originally intended as a funding mechanism for the road system, but long just another general revenue source and often spoken of as “discouraging” unnecessary driving). In these cases the revenues all go to the government.

    When we set minimum sales prices (generally on agricultural products) it to benefit the producers of those products, by ensuring higher-than-market prices. As a rule, this is allegedly for the “protection” of family farms, but in practice most of the benefit goes to politically-connected agribusiness. The consumers all get gouged in a tiny way but the producers benefit big-time; hence the appeal in certain quarters.

    If the UK were to set minimum booze prices I can’t see how that works to the advantage of the statists. The result will be higher profits to the brewers and distillers. Is that truly the goal? True, there might be a slight (very slight) decrease in aggregate consumption, depending upon how price-sensitive that market is, but my guess is that at most you’ll see a small shift toward lower-quality, cheaper brands. That certainly won’t have much effect on the incidence of drunken proles. The only real beneficiary I can see is the large brewers and distillers. Are they behind this?

  • John B

    Where does Jesus come into this?

    Yes it´s obviously another step down the control road.
    The way restrictions were taken off drinking hours, etc, in the when? 90s? would look like an invitation to people to get blind drunk, to those who have been restrained and deprived for decades.

    More of the push/pull technique of control until one´s target is off balance and one can roundly proclaim: “Well you can´t handle it on your own, can you?!”

  • pete

    The BBC is against all things which are bad for people, except brain rotting trash TV aimed at gormless couch potatoes. The corporation knows the importance of providing huge amounts of that at a very reasonable price.

  • michael

    Perhaps the most interesting thing is that Tesco is in favour of minimum unit pricing. Why would that be I wonder?

  • John K

    I keep on reading that this bullshit proposal will break Euro laws. I do hope so. Not that I am in favour of European law trumping British law (even if it is an asinine British law), but many people, including MPs and MSPs, do not seem to have realised that we are not an independent, sel-governing state any more. The fucks really need to have their noses rubbed into this fact.

  • Sunfish

    Johnathan Pearce:

    At least you can usually switch channels to a late-night movie and watch Clint or whoever blowing bad people to glory.

    DVD, my friend, DVD. You can watch Clint bust caps in people’s asses entirely at your own convenience.

    For example, the TV in front of me right now COULD be showing the networks’ choice programming: The View, “Colorado and Company,” Martha Stewart, whatever garbage MSNBC has chosen for the housewife hours. Instead, this half-gallon of unfair-trade coffee and front section of the Wall Street Journal is accompanied by watching Beavis drink pop and pull his shirt over his head for the first time.[1]


    Perhaps the most interesting thing is that Tesco is in favour of minimum unit pricing. Why would that be I wonder?

    If they’re anything like US grocers, I have a guess. Right now they compete at a certain (lower) price point. If Tesco raises its prices then someone else will undersell them. If everybody has a mandatory minimum price that’s higher than the current price, then Tesco can raise its price with impunity.

    See, “pro-business” is not “pro-free-market,” as we see in every damn election year in this state where there’s a tax hike on the ballot that’s billed as having any connection with ‘infrastructure’ or ‘education.’ Businesses tend to want two things from government: dumping costs on somebody else (agriculture and especially ranching are terrible for this) and suppression of competition (which is why the owners of liquor stores are always so likely to show up for hearings about license applications for new liquor stores.) “Business” as a collective herd is second only to government in the ability to spew self-serving-yet-self-righteous crap.

    [1] I will respectfully submit that Beavis and Butthead contains more and better intellectual content than anything which the BBC has shipped to these shores.

  • llamas

    What Laird & Sunfish said, but better-condensed by The Auld Master:

    “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices…. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies, much less to render them necessary.”

    If any of these chuckleheads think that they can alter the Scots “culture of drinking” by this means, they are dreaming – it’s not quite ‘drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence’, but antisocial levels of drunkenness can still be easily achieved at moderate cost even at this price point. Minimum pricing will mainly affect drink being sold at off-licenses, which is mainly consumed at home – which is where you want drunks to be if they’re going to be anywhere.

    Sunfish – afternoons again? Sorry about that – unless you had a specific reason to want to be on afternoons, that is.



  • Wouldn’t the logical extension of a minimum price be a larger serving size? And wouldn’t that be exactly the sort of thing you wouldn’t want if you were a prohibitionist?

    I mean, if I can buy a(n American) pint here for $3.50, and they make the minimum price $7, the tavern is just going to serve me a 32oz beer for $7.

  • Roue le Jour

    And the funny thing is, back in the USSR (boy, you don’t know how lucky you are) the comrades could drink all they liked. I made the mistake of asking for a coffee at a coffee kiosk one morning back in ’82 and the other customers nearly choked on their beer laughing.

  • thefrollickingmole

    Greater regulaton of any sort is ALLWAYS to the betterment of large competitors.

    Large chains can employ a whole office full of flunkies to tick the regulatory boxes, then increace the price of every item by 1% and more than cover the cost.

    Smaller competitors are less able to pass the costs on, and more likely to fall foul of pecksniffian pettifoggery of government mandates (The series “little Dorrit” based on a Dickens story has the government “circumlocution” office, now its whole departments).
    In addition the start up costs are increased for any new competitors, futher decreasing competition.

    Big companies make public declarations of how painful any new regulations are which are as genuine as brer rabbit calling not to be cast into the briar patch.


  • Another aspect to this is drinking by the homeless; precisely the people who are likely to be most attracted to a <45p can of lager. In the center of Edinburgh for example, I used to have to regularly deal with homeless people wandering onto Church premises during sunday services - often with a can of McEwans in one hand and a plastic bag full of soiled clothes in the other. I never had any serious trouble in asking them to leave, but they were often a pain in the neck (they would invariably stink to high heaven) and so it would be no surprise to me that this minimum pricing law in Scotland was proposed with these people specifically in mind, rather than people who want to take a few beers home with their Indian take-away.

  • OK… I must remember that non-html use of the inequality symbols will be punished by html…

    Anyway I was saying that the minimum pricing law in Scotland may well have been proposed with the homeless specifically in mind rather than people bringing a beer or two home with their Indian take-away. I used to work part time in a Church in Edinburgh. One of my responsibilities was to prevent homeless people from disrupting sunday services; they would wander into the building twenty minutes into the service often with a tin of Tennants Lager in one hand and a bag of soiled clothes in the other. They were never any serious trouble, but they were a pain in the neck – though none of that is a defence of minimum pricing laws.

  • Well, if Mr Jack had been awake during his college days while studying some economics, he’d realise that firms routinely sell some items at such cheap prices, even below production costs, to encourage a new market, whether it be for booze, cars or whatever.

    Also, companies routinely overproduce, because they understand that one of the best ways to lose customers is to not have product on hand when the customers want it, and the profit lost by producing too much is considerably less than the potential profit lost by producing too little. In the case of perishable goods like beer, they sell the excess cheap when it gets close to its sell by date. This suits large pub chains with rapid distribution and large turnover who can then sell the beer quickly (but still before its sell by date), which is one reason why large chains can undercut smaller independent pubs on price. There is nothing sinister about this practice and it helps brewers improve their profitability, but in a narrow sense beer is being sold at a loss.

    Or another way of looking at it. Once you have produced something, the question of what it cost to produce is meaningless. The only question of importance is how much someone is willing to pay you for it. If you have made a loss, tough, but selling at a loss is better than pouring the beer down the sink

  • Rob

    A couple of points:

    Is the “booze industry” really selling below cost? The supermarkets are, aren’t they? They are no more the “booze industry” than Sainsbury’s are the “clothes industry” because they may sell jeans.

    The Prohibitionist stance is driven by disdain and snobbery of the working classes. They also continue to insist on the lie that we are drinking more than ever, when even the government says that we aren’t

  • Laird

    “Once you have produced something, the question of what it cost to produce is meaningless. The only question of importance is how much someone is willing to pay you for it. If you have made a loss, tough, but selling at a loss is better than pouring the beer down the sink.”

    Precisely. That’s what most people fail to understand about pricing: the cost of production is totally irrelevant to the market price. Indeed, the reverse is closer to the truth. The anticipated market price determines whether you produce the product or not. If you expect to be able to sell your product at a price higher than your costs of production you make it; otherwise, you don’t. And if you guess wrong about either side of the equasion, you lose money. Tough luck. That’s capitalism.

  • Surellin

    Here in the great state of Ohio, there has always (to the best of my knowledge) been a minimum price for alcohol, at least in the groceries and carryouts and whatnot – not sure about restaurants and bars. The purpose is (allegedly) to allow smaller retail outlets to not be driven out of business by large groceries taking advantage of economies of scale. Which is why I have, indeed, fermented and even distilled my own. I raise my own tobacco, too. Now that I think of it, perhaps I should move into a log cabin and raise hogs, just to be consistent.