Higher taxes won’t cut binge drinking

The Conservative party has promised to introduce a new booze tax to curb anti-social drinking. Speaking at the party’s annual conference in Manchester, Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said that once in government, the Tories would increase taxes on super-strength beer, cider and alcopops to stop teenagers getting “very drunk, quickly and cheaply”.

But will pricier booze really turn people, especially binge drinkers, off alcohol? Probably not.

Putting up the price on specific types of drink is like telling children in a sweet shop that the price of Mars bars has gone up by 50p, but the price of Kit-Kats has stayed the same. The kids will just start eating the Kit-Kats.

When the price of something rises – be that through government intervention or simple changes in supply and demand – people don’t just do without. They find ways to get around the problem. They get cheap booze from elsewhere, for example. Finland had to drop its draconian tax on alcohol in 2004, because people just smuggled it in from the Baltic states, hitting the Finnish exchequer.

Or they just substitute one drink for another that has the same effect. Last year, the Australian government increased the tax on alcopops by 70% under its own plan to tackle teenage binge drinking. Under the increase, the price of alcopops jumped from $39.36 per litre of alcohol content to $66.67. But according to a report from Access Economics in February, the alcopops tax did nothing to cut the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions. Teens kept swigging, probably by making their own alcopops with cans of Fanta and vodka from their parents’ drinks cabinet.

Don’t get me wrong here. When booze is more expensive, consumption does drop. Take Norway, where a pint costs about £5.50 and people drink about a third as much as we do here in Britain.

The trouble is, it’s mostly moderate drinkers who ease off. The people who actually need to cut down the most, don’t. That’s because having a drink problem is usually down to factors other than price.

For example, a 2004 study conducted with the Center for Disease Control in San Diego found that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as sexual abuse, missing parents, physical abuse, drug abusing parents and other incidents are highly correlated with substance abuse (including alcohol abuse, tobacco use, drug abuse and obesity). In fact, only 3% of adults who never had an ACE were alcoholics. That rose to 10% among those with two ACEs.

So if politicians really want to tackle problem drinking, they need to look at what’s behind it – not just make it more expensive.