Published in the Times (UK), March 29 2012
Update, March 13 2013 – big surprise, a year on. David Cameron’s pledge to address the “scandal of the 20p pint” is abandoned, following a ministerial revolt.
I once invited a drinks industry spokesman for a Saturday evening out in Edinburgh. I thought he should sample some of our fine pubs, ending the evening al fresco on Cowgate or at the top of Leith Walk where we might watch the drink-fuddled teenagers fight, weep and vomit in the gutters.
We could ponder just what contribution cheap booze is making to Britain’s rocketing liver disease rates. After all, he had worked tirelessly to keep the price of young people’s alcohol as low as possible — lower than certain mineral waters, cheaper than milk. I must have phrased the invite poorly: he never replied.
Last week the spokesman and the rest of the alcohol trade had a small setback when George Osborne in the Budget overruled the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and announced that the minimum price of alcohol would be set at 40p a unit — which would set the base price for a bottle of red wine at £3.75 and a pint of normal beer around 85p. So not so harsh. Alcohol abuse campaigners had been calling for 45p or 50p a unit — Osborne could have really punished the trade if he’d made them increase the price and then taken the surplus as duty.
Instead, analysts predict the forced price rise will earn the industry £810 million a year, and cost next to nothing in sales (it would add just £21 a year to the average household budget). Nevertheless, the industry sent out its PR people in force to protest: the proposal, they said, was an unfair restriction on the right to trade (which will be pursued in the European courts) and, more absurdly, an assault on the “ordinary, sensible drinker” — that’s all those ordinary people who like to buy red wine for less than £3.75 a bottle.
Urban teenage drinkers are not sensible, and many of them only go to pubs and clubs after they’ve “preloaded” with really cheap booze from the discount supermarkets. Cider or perry, which are taxed at a lower rate than beer, and flavoured grain spirit sold as schnapps are the cheapest of all.
Last weekend in Iceland I found extra-strength cider at around the same price as milk. A 3l bottle of Frosty Jack — which is 7.5 per cent, double the strength of normal beer — for just £3 (90p cheaper, incidentally, than all the reporting of this particular cheap drink said). Three litres would certainly get me pissed and just one is nearly twice the daily guideline alcohol units for a man. That’s 13.3p a unit.
The big-name supermarkets in Edinburgh don’t sell much at less than 40p a unit. The cheapest of those I could find last week was Tesco Value Vodka at £8.72 for 70cl — just over 28 units. So that would have to rise to £11.25 a bottle under the Osborne proposal. It seems tough, but then, vodka cost £8 a bottle when I was a student, 30 years ago.
So, to celebrate the small move forward, here’s a cocktail to celebrate the last years (the Government’s proposed new measure won’t come in till 2014) of really cheap alcohol. I’ve named it in honour of Andrew Opie, the spokesman for the British Retail Consortium who announced last week that David Cameron was “seriously misguided” when he okayed the Chancellor’s minimum alcohol proposal. That supermarkets have any blame in irresponsible drinking is a “myth”, he explained: it’s all about “cultural causes”. Iceland is one of the BRC’s members.
The Andrew Opie Breezer
This traditional refresher is normally drunk by the pint. At 3.9 alcohol units you’ll be at the top of the daily alcohol limit recommended for a man (and well over for a woman), and you’ll be getting nicely tipsy for less than 85p.
25ml Tesco Value vodka, 29p (1 unit)
250ml Tennent’s lager from the Co-operative, 30p (1 unit)
250ml Frosty Jack cider from Iceland, 25p (1.9 units)
Mix very well. Drink responsibly.
Update – big surprise, a year on. David Cameron’s pledge to address “the curse of cheap alcohol” is said to be dropped, following a ministerial revolt. Meanwhile, the Scottish Whisky Association continues to block the Scottish government’s attempt to introduce a minimum price, even though it would not affect the price of whisky.
- For anyone whose drinking is out of control – help and advice here.