U.K. Study Suggests Grocers Should Be Banned From Selling Alcohol

Intervening in the U.K. alcohol market hasn't produced the desired effect, but experts want yet another bite at the apple.


Grocery stores in the United Kingdom should stop selling alcohol, a controversial new study suggests. The study, published this month in the Journal of Public Health and authored by researchers from the University of Cardiff and elsewhere, suggests inexpensive food sold at groceries that also sell alcohol may encourage more alcohol sales.

"People who pop into the supermarket with a budget are attracted to cheap food offers and therefore spend more on alcohol," lead author Simon Moore told the Daily Mail this week.

"If the way alcohol is retailed influences consumption then consideration should be given to how alcohol is retailed in the U.K. and whether separate stores for alcohol and food… provide greater opportunity to challenge the harms associated with alcohol consumption," the study concludes.

The study looks favorably at countries in which governments "hold a monopoly over alcohol retail" alcohol sales, including Finland and Canada, while contrasting it with the U.K., where "alcohol is not subject to a state monopoly… it is available through various retail outlets, the prominent suppliers of which are local convenience stores and large grocery stores." That means, as Moore notes, "you can go and buy a bottle of wine with your bread and Sunday paper from a supermarket or local shop."

Predictably, reports on the study raise the specter of the "nanny state."

"Stripping alcohol from supermarket shelves could help to curb Britain's drinking problem, according to 'nannying' scientists," the Daily Mail reported in an article this week on the study.

Importantly, as the Daily Mail piece also notes, the study was spurred in part by a pair of failed policy interventions.

In Britain, according to a recent parliamentary study, there's "a widespread belief that most of the alcohol that contributes to drunken behaviour is irresponsibly priced and sold." In response, Scotland and Wales have implemented minimum-pricing laws, while England bans the sale of alcohol beverages below their taxed value (or "below the level of alcohol duty plus VAT").

But the new "study found hiking alcohol prices in Scotland and Wales barely had any effect on [alcohol] consumption," the paper reports.

Despite those minimum-pricing policies having failed to achieve their objectives, the study authors nevertheless conclude that these failures indicate the need for still more policy interventions to make the original failed policy work. Minimum "pricing policies might be undermined," they opine, "if retailers offset an increase in alcohol price by reducing the price of food or increase the availability of alcohol."

Alas, doubling down on policy errors has become one of modern government's chief functions, something critics are also noting.

"This just looks like public health trying to double down on its previous failures, and moderate drinkers will once again suffer the consequences," the Adam Smith Institute told the Daily Mail.

There's been no shortage of recent studies on food and alcohol in Britain. One concluded that the pandemic-related lockdown has seen Britons load up on food and drink at rates higher than those elsewhere on the European continent. Another found that people who drink even a little tend to consume more calories from food. And another concluded that younger British drinkers are consuming less alcohol than that same cohort did a decade ago.

I wonder if the authors of the new study considered other options that might yield the results they desire. For example, grocers could be forced to raise food prices—perhaps by government banning grocer discounts on the purchase of fresh produce—which would leave consumers with less money to buy alcohol. Or government could prohibit grocers from selling food. Or, better still, the law could force grocers to stop selling both food and alcohol entirely. (On second thought, none of these ideas are very good, either.)

As I explained in a 2015 column, government attempts to socially engineer food choices tend to end in failure. Policies that restrict food freedom do not make people healthier, as evidenced by the catastrophic failure of a Los Angeles ban on new fast-food restaurants, the failure and repeal of Denmark's so-called 'fat tax,' and damning research on mandatory menu labeling in the United States. Banning grocers from selling alcohol belongs on the same sordid list.