Monday, July 23, 2007

Progressive alcohol duty

We’re drinking too much. Not just me personally, although I’m certainly doing my bit to keep the next generation of hepatologists in work, but all of us: we’re becoming a nation of puking, brawling bingers doomed to cirrhosis and/or heavy machinery operation accidents. It’s a grim enough prospect to drive you to drink. Something Must Be Done.

Some TV coverage of the Chief Medical Officer’s call to increase alcohol duty featured a few vox pops with ‘people in the street’, who may or may not have arrived in said street by means of being thrown out of a pub. One of them said: “They can put the price up but it won’t do anything, people will still want to drink. Are you looking at my bird?” or some such.

And he had a point. Not about looking at his bird, who wasn’t featured on screen, and anyway he didn’t actually say that bit, but about trying to price booze out of people’s shaking yet jealous hands.

Drinking in hefty quantities is highly esteemed by many people, and it would require really huge tax rises to have much of an effect; it’d be easier to deter the people who can take it or leave it, but they’re not really the problem.

So what about this: don’t try to make heavier drinkers cut back on how many they have, but use the duty system to encourage a shift towards weaker drinks.

HM Revenue and Customs gives duty rates for beer as £13.71 per hectolitre per cent of alcohol in the beer – i.e. one flat rate, with the amount payable increasing in line with the strength of the beer.

What about introducing a number of bands, where the rate payable increases with strength? Anything below 4% abv could sell at the existing £13.71; 4-4.5% at a higher rate, and so on. This would annoy the fans of stronger stuff (and the brewers of stronger stuff), but the behavioural change involved in switching one’s usual to a different brew is far smaller than that involved in significantly cutting down, and so more amenable to fiscal manipulation.

(There already seem to be a number of wine bands: 1.2-4%, 4-5.5%, 5.5-15% and 15-22% abv. The principle’s there, but surely the main action should be going on around the 9-13% range?)


Chris said...

It's a definite improvement on the idea that an increase across the board will work for all the different types of behaviour.

However, I'm not sure about the suggested straight relationship between alcoholic strength and choice by the binge drinker and/or dispomaniac. I don't think that it's hordes of Duval drinkers doing the damage. Or take spirits, where it's the £9 litre bottle of 35% vodka that's worse news for dispomaniacs and teenagers looking to get semi-loaded at the start of the evening than the 40% £18 Smirnoff Black. And, of course, progressive taxing on wine hasn't stopped Buckfast. The trouble is, I suppose, that there's few things that can be done to stop sale of cheaper versions except, maybe, have Germanic beer purity laws. But if that's so, then even progressive taxing would only work if (enough of) the people whose behaviour you want to change are more willing to drink less but of high quality booze than to keep going downmarket, as with tabs and Lambert and Butler.

Tom Freeman said...

Hmm, so maybe we need to nurture an appreciation of good-quality booze in the young.

A wine-tasting GCSE?

Evan said...

Looking at the Duty Rates, what really strikes me is that, while the duty on beer and spirit is proportional to the percent of alcohol, the duty on wine is proportional to the volume of the PRODUCT. So, a bottle of wine containing 15% alcohol pays the same duty as that paying 5.5% - thereby providing a fiscal incentive to drink stronger wines. I can't understand why the duty system on wine is different. The duties on beer and spirits do at least mean that those who drink high alcohol beers have to pay more.