The idea that you can jack up prices — by taxation or other means — and thereby shape society seems to mesmerise politicians. So the new estimates by the Department of Heath that a minimum price for alcohol — of 50p per ‘unit’ — would mean precisely 43,800 fewer crimes a year and 296,900 fewer sick days is like a magic wand to be waved at the dispatch box.
What officials forget is that people find ways of adapting to and circumventing government rules. Tobacco in Britain is very heavily taxed, purportedly to discourage its use. The Treasury now estimates that one in five cigarettes smoked in Britain has been smuggled in illegally. In Scandinavia, where drink prices are extortionate, it is not uncommon for a bottle of pure bootleg alcohol to be plonked on the table and drunk like vodka.
Those whom raising the price of booze is meant to deter — the young in deprived housing estates — turn to cheaper, more destructive alternatives. The collapse of drug prices in Britain means that a marijuana joint costs £2.50, a tab of ecstasy £3 and a line of cocaine £4. For too many young people, a trip to the off-licence is already a more expensive way to a good time. Increasing drink prices only serves to make more dangerous options more attractive.
The Conservatives have rightly highlighted the problem of social decay in what David Cameron calls Broken Britain. It is a complex problem that requires sophisticated solutions. Increasing alcohol prices is not one of them.