Note: Apologies in advance for any missed typos – it’s a pretty sucky day.
David Cameron, in yet another outbreak of making-it-up-as-he-goes-along mendacity, claims that “a family with a reasonable drinking habit” was “actually subsidising the binge drinker” because supermarkets were increasing the price of food to fund cuts in alcoholic drinks. (Telegraph which illustrates their article with a photo of Cameron, looking bemused, as he pretends to shop at a Morrison’s store.)
Ignoring the total lack of proof for his claim, he seems – not surprisingly, given his ivory-tower bigotry – to be totally unaware of the concept of the loss-leader, a product that a supermarket willingly makes a loss on, because it gets people into the store, where they’ll spend more money on other goods. Loss-leaders have been around pretty much since the first supermarket opened its doors in the US, but seems to have passed Cameron by.
And how does he know that the “a family with a reasonable drinking habit,” like his, allegedly (though you might question whether leaving a kid in the pub is indicative of a reasonable drinking habit), isn’t subsidising the cheap booze via the cost of their booze? Simple, he doesn’t.
Cameron apparently bases his claim on a three-year old article published in the Royal College of Physicians’ Clinical Medicine Journal, by Dr Chris Record, a liver specialist at Newcastle University, who claimed pricing alcohol at 50p a unit would reduce food prices by 2.8%. There appears, based on the Telegraph article, to be no evidence to support what is essentially one man’s opinion, and we all know how expert liver specialists are when it comes to the retail food trade, which is to say, no more expert than you or I. Less so, in fact, would be my guess.
The fact is, nobody forces supermarkets to sell crappy booze at cost, or less than cost; they choose to do so because it gets people into the store. And it’s arguably the case that the supermarkets, far from supplying a demand, actually created the demand for ultra-cheap booze in the first place.
And, of course, there is not the slightest evidence that cheap booze is bought solely by binge drinkers. A lot is bought, especially in summer, to lubricate barbies, and at this time of year to fuel parties, but more consistently across the year, it’s probably bought by people who, increasingly, can’t afford to go to the pub. For example, if I drank the stuff, I could pick up 20 bottles of Beck’s lager for less that the taxi fare to and from the pub.
By the way, I have no axe to grind here, pro or con cheap booze. I haven’t been able to go to the pub for four months or more (I’ve lost track), and I don’t drink at home to any measurable extent (I still have a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s that I bought in 2010). If I do buy booze, I buy good stuff – St. Austell Tribute beer, or Aspall organic cider, Bombay Sapphire gin and Russian Standard vodka. All of which I have in stock, and all of which – apart from the 9 bottles of beer and cider – I will probably still have when Spring rolls around. I simply get no pleasure from drinking at home – I prefer the pub. The spirits are for the nights I can’t sleep.
But back to Spamface and his bullshit. His unsupported claims have met with universal rebuttal and condemnation from everyone from The British Retail Consortium to someone the Telegraph calls Sainsburt, and every other supermarket group. The unanimous opinion is that he’s talking out of his arse, though with a face like that it’s hard to tell.
Alcohol is a loss leader – anyone who knows anything whatsoever about modern retailing understands that concept. So is cheap bread, or spuds – pretty much any product that makes you take a pace back and think “Wow! That’s cheap!” is probably a loss-leader, the express purpose of which is to keep you shopping.
Buy a cheap loss-leader, the logic goes, and it keeps you in the store where you’ll be tempted to buy lots of other stuff while looking for more bargains. Anyone with half a brain knows this, and doesn’t get sucked in, but enough people do to make the scheme a very lucrative one, and a very long-established one too.
So why is Cameron lying in public yet again? Well, the main reason, of course, is that for him, lying is like a form of Tourette’s – it’s an involuntary reflex – he opens his mouth to speak, he lies. This time, though, he’s lying in support of his intention to set a minimum unit price for alcohol, regardless of what damage this might do to the already struggling pub industry, or to small brewers already feeling the pinch.
A minimum unit price for alcohol, like the units themselves, or five-a-day fruit. and veg, or the exhortation to drink 2 litres of water a day, has no foundation in science – they are all back-of-an envelope schemes. Take the unit of alcohol. This is based on a beer strength of 3.6% – a strength which it is almost impossible to buy these days (most draught beer is between 4% and 5% abv). It also equates to a single shot, 25ml, of 40% abv spirits, but unless you carry a calculator when you go to the pub, unless you drink only spirits you have only a rough idea of your unit consumption, and most people don’t care anyway. In fact there’s an increasing demand for ever stronger beers, which for those of us who drink because we like beer, not because we like getting shitfaced as fast as possible, or subscribe to the pseudo-macho bollocks that surrounds strong beer, is bad news.
I was tempted to say that this is a problem that needs addressing, not the supermarket fiction but, I suppose, people are free to spend their money how they wish.** Trouble is, though, those of us who prefer weaker beers are increasingly marginalised.
**Mind you, that same logic applies to cheap beer, which doesn’t seem to worry Spamface at all.
But back to Cameron, and his lies, and he’s also bitching about “poorer” people enjoying cheap beer. Hands up if you’re at all surprised…
His claim that jacking up the price of alcohol wouldn’t “hit family budgets” but would have “some health benefits as well” is the purest fiction.
When I started drinking, at 19, bitter was the equivalent of 7.5p per pint in pubs (double that in clubs, the opposite of today’s trends), and last time I was in a pub, I paid £3.30.
Years ago I swore I’d stop drinking when the price reached a then stratospheric £1 a pint. That worked out well! It’s a fact (as well as being a beer drinker for 48 years, I spent half of that time in the trade), and I know better than most that, for many people, they’d cut spending on other things rather than cut spending on alcohol.
Raising the price might drive them out of the pubs, pubs can’t afford to lose then, to drink at home but, hey, Cameron wants to make that more expensive too – yet another way he’s found to punish the poor simply for being poor.
No surprise there, then. Watch for a boom in home-brew if the minimum unit price happens.
As for Cameron’s alleged health benefits, they’re probably fictional too. I’ve not been to a pub, as I said, in over four months, and I’m certainly not seeing any health benefits. But then, I drank only on one afternoon a week, so aside from the fact that I no longer have a once a week hangover, there are few, if any, health benefits to be had. On the plus side, I’m certainly seeing bank-balance benefits and that, for people close to the poverty line, can only be a good thing.
And as for his claim that binge drinkers buy cheap supermarket booze, one thing that militates against that is the fact that to get the stuff home you need a car, something the binge drinkers he has in mind, who can only afford cheap fizzy crap, are unlikely to have.
And one last point. A hell of a lot of binge drinkers, alcoholics, Special Brew-chugging street people, at least where I live, don’t buy discount supermarket booze – they drink cut-price beer in the nearest Wetherspoon’s boozer, in their hundreds. And when they’re not doing that they’re buying it from the corner shops, a can or two at a time – because stumping up £20 for a box at Sainsbury’s or Tesco, probably plus a taxi home, is just too expensive for many of them.
In Wetherspoon’s, they can stay in the warm, spinning out their beer or getting hammered, according to their habits/budget, in comfort, not sitting on a bench, getting pissed and frozen in equal measure.
Are these the health benefits Dave had in mind? Somehow, I suspect not, and that it’s only a matter of time before he comes up with a plan to electronically tag everybody on benefits, to make sure they don’t actually have any fun at all.
That, or benefits will be paid in vouchers, for food, clothes, rent, utilities, and will self-destruct if you go into a pub.
Don’t say you weren’t warned.