Annabel Denham

The nanny state is making us poorer

The nanny state is making us poorer
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As household budgets face their worst squeeze for decades, one wonders whether the public health establishment feels any remorse for their role in driving up the cost of living. The kinds of taxes – on food, alcohol, tobacco, and soft drinks – that nanny statists have dedicated entire careers toward delivering are proven to have taken a greater share of income from the poor than the rich. An average family that indulges in drinking and tobacco will now spend £891 in cigarette levies and £216 in alcohol duty every year.

Advocates for sin taxes argue that their tactics are progressive if they improve the health of the poor more than the rich. Others may suggest that government revenues from these taxes can be used to cover the harms caused by smoking, drinking and obesity. The former argument ignores the economic hardship these policies create. The latter is not clear-cut: bear in mind, for instance, that the costs to the government of treating smoking-attributable diseases are covered more than four times over by early death savings and tobacco duty revenue.

Against this backdrop, it was revealed on Sunday that minimum unit pricing in Scotland had cost Scottish consumers £270 million over four years – the equivalent to over £70 per drinker. The policy, which sets a floor price on a unit of alcohol to prevent the sale of ‘cheap’ drinks, was introduced in Scotland in May 2018 because the Scottish government lacked the power to raise alcohol duty itself.

This means that the cost to consumers, paid through higher prices, is not collected as a tax but instead increases the revenues (and presumably profits) of alcohol suppliers. (I have no issue with businesses making profits, but it seems an odd response from officials who seem to have different attitudes towards the industry.)

There is little evidence to suggest a decline in crime, A&E attendances, or in alcohol-related hospital admissions. In 2021, alcohol-related deaths hit a 10-year high. And yet minimum prices had been presented as the ‘single most effective’ means of tackling alcohol-related harm by the Scottish government. Researchers at the University of Sheffield predicted that, in the first year alone, there would be a 3.5 per cent drop in alcohol consumption, 58 fewer alcohol-related deaths, and 1,299 fewer hospital admissions.

It is true that alcohol consumption has fallen in Scotland over four years, but this doesn't mean that harmful drinking has been reduced. And a recent study from Public Health Scotland found that 3 per cent of people have travelled to another part of the UK solely to buy alcohol. If a 3.5 per cent drop in alcohol consumption was significant enough to justify the policy, then 130,000 people going on ‘booze cruises’ to England is surely enough to make us question it.

Yet it seems unlikely, especially now that Wales and Ireland have followed Scotland in introducing minimum unit prices, that any policymakers will question it. Minimum unit prices can simply be added to the pile of paternalistic, regressive and seemingly ineffective measures introduced on the basis of dubious assumptions and peddled by those who believe others too irrational to make sensible decisions.

Public health overreach has extended to such a degree that it scarcely relates to 'public health' anymore. The term used to mean vaccinations, sanitation, education – all measures designed to combat communicable diseases. But in the lead up to the outbreak of Covid-19, the World Health Organization was busy campaigning for universal healthcare, taxation, gender equality and housing. Public Health England, which performed so poorly during the pandemic that it was abolished, spent more time endorsing minimum pricing for alcohol than PPE provision.

Yet the experience of the pandemic has done little to dampen the public health establishment's zeal. In the past few months alone, academics from the University of Stirling have suggested prominent health warnings on alcohol products would make drinking 'unappealing' and 'socially unacceptable' to young adult drinkers. Health warnings are designed to give consumers important information, not socially engineer. A group of NGOs has attacked supermarkets for ‘bombarding’ shoppers with offers of cheap meat, by which they mean ‘making available at a reasonable price’. Academics at Bath University have called for a price cap on cigarettes, meaning the government would be setting tobacco prices.

The plan to ban buy-one-get-one-free on ‘junk food’ is still slated to take effect this autumn, right when the cost of living crisis is expected to peak. It's part of a raft of measures designed to narrow our waistlines, though even the government's own impact assessment predicts this will reduce food intake by a paltry three calories per day. Instead of crying crocodile tears over the costs of living, the government needs to do something about it, and row back the pointless nannying.