Alcohol Pricing…on the up and up

Taken at face value, I completely agree with Jim Wells.
Taken at face value, I completely agree with Jim Wells…sorry, I had to write that again to make sure it wasn’t an autocorrect. Minimum pricing for alcohol is a sensible idea, I have long agreed that the off-sales industry with specific reference to supermarkets are the root of the problems faced in society by alcohol. Unfortunately, minimum pricing is against the law.

When a bad news story such as Joby Murphy or the Hardwell concert at the Odyssey Arena break, alcohol is mentioned negatively and when this happens people think of pubs, bars, nightclubs…because we are in the business of alcohol. In both of those cases Colin Neill, CEO of Pubs of Ulster is quick to come out and enact damage limitation, which in some ways is the responsible thing to do; why though is it not a representative of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium having to defend the practice of its industry? According to the Department of Health, Social Services & Public Safety NI survey, “Adult Drinking Patterns Survey NI 2013” 81% of alcohol was consumed not in a licensed premises (Own home, Someone else’s home). Is this because pubs are boring…I’m inclined (and obligated) to say no, it’s because of the price as much as anything else.

JD Wetherspoons, that infamous purveyor of cut-price booze was slaughtered in certain sections of the press a couple of years ago for having a January sale where some pints of lager were as cheap as 99p. Their 2013 January sale went as low as £1.49 for a bottle of becks, £1.99 for a gin and tonic and £1.99 for some pints of real ale. If you were to go to Asda right now you could purchase 36 300ml bottles of Budweiser for just £20, or 55p per bottle. I checked my suppliers price list today, this is cheaper than I can buy a single bottle wholesale, in fact having researched this article, I may have to shop savvier in future for products, factoring in supermarkets as well as wholesalers. The Joby Murphy incident led to Belfast nightclub The Box being hauled over the coals for selling vodka at £1 a shot; Asda will sell you a 700ml bottle of their own brand vodka for £11.50, or 57p per 35ml serve. Not to mention the farce that is supermarket own brands…since when was Scotch considered a “basic” (Sainsburys)
Who really needs white rum to be such a good value that it is affordable every day
I am a big fan of local craft beer, but even I can’t buy Whitewater bottled beers direct from the brewery at less than Tesco sell it for in their stores. Minimum pricing would both level the playing field, and reduce the ease at which problem drinking becomes a reality.

Now, the other fact of this issue is that minimum pricing for alcohol, is illegal. Jim Wells is all too aware of this, and in case it did slip his memory, he could ask some of his executive colleagues about the EU court of justice ruling forbidding Ireland from setting a minimum retail price for cigarettes. A key section of the ruling read as follows:

The imposition of a minimum retail selling price means that the maximum retail selling price determined by manufacturers and importers cannot, in any event, be lower than that obligatory minimum price, and is therefore capable of undermining competition by preventing manufacturers or importers from taking advantage of lower cost prices so as to offer more attractive retail selling prices.

The ruling did leave scope for price control by clarifying that countries can block the sale of tobacco at a loss, but left it very clear that setting a specific price bracket was illegal. So Jim Wells & Mervyn Storey can wax lyrical in their role as acolytes for the caleb foundation and the free presbyterian church, the fact remains that they can’t implement this so it is purely a verbal crusade with no hope of passing into law(which may be for the best as a rise cost of altar wine in churches could lead to more issues for them).

Jim Wells said that hazardous and harmful drinkers make up around 20% of the population but drink almost 70% of all the alcohol consumed in Northern Ireland. Looking at some demographics this leads me to conclude that he means the following:
Ruling out those under 14 years of age, there are approximately 1.45m citizens of Northern Ireland. If Jim Wells believes that 20% of the population are hazardous and harmful drinkers, then this is 290,000 people…Belfast has a population just above 280,000 so is he seriously stating that the equivalent of the population of our capital city are “hazardous and harmful” drinkers? I would love to see where those figures came from? Edwin Poots said in 2012 that Minimum Alcohol pricing would be introduced in 2013…how did that work out for Poots? Scotland introduced this and are still waiting patiently on the EU to say no to them.

The research into minimum pricing for alcohol also took into account absolutely no lateral developments from the implementation. Paramilitaries currently seem to have a fairly decent racket going with counterfeit cigarettes and smuggling operations; it is not exactly inconceivable that a minimum pricing on alcohol could see fuel laundering plants begin to timeshare with moonshiners. Will severe problem drinkers look at the shelf, look at their wallet and walk away to the soft drinks aisle? Or will they progress to even more dangerous products. I firmly believe something needs to be done, however in my eyes, responsible retailing needs to be more stringently introduced to the off-sales industry, we have all stood behind someone in a queue and watched the clearly inebriated customer in front empty his arms of over-strength booze onto the counter whilst the checkout assistant is clueless and not empowered to take any action. I recall hearing a statistic last year where Buckfast had been mentioned in crime reports in Scotland around 7000 times in a 3 year period, and if memory serves, in 10% of those, the buckfast bottle itself was described in the report as “the weapon”. I can reassure Jim Wells, Mervyn Storey et al. that my observations around Belfast City Centre tell me that Buckfast is no longer an issue amongst on-street problem drinking. The vagrants seem to have moved on to Port (Asda – 1L – £8.50 – 20% ABV)