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Scotland Levies New Taxes on Working-Class Drinkers

In an old joke, a little boy climbs onto his father's knee.

"Daddy," he says, his wide eyes bright with optimism. "Now that alcohol is so expensive, does that mean you'll drink less?"

The father laughs.

"No, my son," he replies. "It means you'll eat less."

In May, Scotland decided to test this joke on a national scale when it became the first country in the world to implement "minimum-unit pricing." The policy sets a price floor for alcohol at 50 pence (approximately 68 U.S. cents) per unit—i.e., 10 milliliters of pure booze. (A standard 25-milliliter shot of 40 percent whiskey is one unit; a standard 175-milliliter glass of 14 percent wine is 2.4 units.) That threshold won't affect the price of premium products, such as Champagne, fine wine, and craft beer, which all cost more than the new minimum to begin with, but it will cause the price of a lot of other products to skyrocket. According to data from NHS Scotland, more than half of the alcohol sold in Scottish supermarkets in 2016 cost less than 50 pence per unit—with some as little as 18 pence per unit.

The policy has good intentions: Scotland has the highest rate of alcohol-related deaths in the United Kingdom, and advocates hope this policy will change that. A study using the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model suggests that the new price floor could save 392 lives within five years and lead to 8,000 fewer hospital admissions. There are also potential financial benefits: Scottish Health Secretary Shona Robison claims that alcohol misuse costs the country 3.6 billion pounds ($4.9 billion) each year.

But critics argue that this policy unfairly targets the poor.

"It's not just a regressive policy," said Chris Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs. "It's a policy that actively exempts the rich. Nothing will change for people who buy fine wine. It's the people who buy boxes of wine who will be hit."

The price differences are likely to be most striking at the border, where Scottish customers have the option to drive to English stores. When The Scottish Sun compared the price of a loaded shopping cart in southern Scotland with an identical cart 30 miles south in England, it found that the Scottish cart cost 30 pounds (about $40) more—a 40 percent markup. According to critics of the policy, that kind of price increase makes it harder for low-income Scots to stock up on bargain-basement liquor for holiday gatherings, summer barbecues, or game days.

"I think there will be a bit of cross-border trade in the short term—a relatively small number of people who are trying to game the system—but it's important to split that individual behavior from what's likely to happen in the vast majority of cases," said Ewan MacDonald-Russell, the head of policy and external affairs for the Scottish Retail Consortium. "We don't know what's going to happen now. It might have all kinds of effects we haven't predicted."

Policies meant to address alcohol misuse are trendy throughout the region. Wales is expected to adopt minimum-unit pricing in the summer of 2019, and there are campaigns to extend the policy to England as well. In the Republic of Ireland, the parliament has considered implementing an even higher price floor for alcohol, but concerns about cost imbalance across the border have stalled the policy until Northern Ireland adopts a similar rule.

And yet minimum-unit pricing may not be enough for anti-alcohol activists: An advocacy alliance is now calling for a ban on selling booze after 8 p.m. And if the attack on libations isn't enough, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently vowed to go after two-for-one pizza deals in an effort to stymie the child obesity epidemic. (First they came for the boxed wine…)

If nothing else, this neo-prohibition creates opportunities for Scots to play hopscotch with the law. Home brewing is always an option, and online sales remain a significant loophole: When the Scottish Sunday Express ordered a large cart of alcohol on Amazon, it cost less than the same items would have at a local store, even including the 5 pound shipping fee, since the box was dispatched from England.

And if the Amazon fee is too steep for your liking? No problem. Scottish social media users who work across the border are offering to bring booze back home with them—for a price, of course.

For now, delivery starts at just 1 pound.

Photo Credit: davidhills/iStock

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  • SQRLSY One||

    Mad Dog (Mogen David) "fortified" wines hardest hit!

  • Conchfritters||

    But critics argue that this policy unfairly targets the poor.

    It's about fucking time the poor paid their fair share!

    Seriously, shouldn't we be encouraging smoking, drinking, and unhealthy lifestyles? Cigarettes should be $1.50 a pack, beer should be $8 a case - - Who is a larger drain on the public coffers? The person who dies of lung cancer or cirrhosis when they are 65, or the person who retires at 62 and lives until 105, collecting SS for 43 years, and Medicare for 40 years?

  • NoVaNick||

    ^This^ and lets not forget that with the birthrate falling, old geezers will be an even bigger drain on the public coffers. FWIW, my aunt, who smoked well into her 70s and still enjoys her drink, is still going strong at 92, while both my parents who never smoked, only made it to their mid-70s.

  • Juice||

    Well, I've got some members of my extended family who smoked like chimneys all their lives and they're all dead or dying of cancer, so there's another anecdote to throw on the pile.

  • NoVaNick||

    Not endorsing smoking, or boozing here, just saying -nothing...Or maybe, some just happen to be lucky, though we are going to all die of something which may or may not be preventable.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I remember reading some time back that someone in England had decided that the cause of binge drinking was because of the short pub hours, that they closed at such oddball and unpopular times that people binged to make up for it. Similar in concept to the idea that US college students binge drink because it's illegal, so try to get as drunk as possible as quick as possible and get away from the legal system as quick as possible.

    Anyhoo, supposedly having identified the problem, they let the pubs stay open a couple more hours. Never heard any more about it. Don't know if the nannies didn't have enough patience to see what happened or if the public had by then said the hell with it, I like binge drinking.

  • Zeb||

    I'm sure the early closing times contributed to people drinking more, faster. But I think mostly British people just really love drinking.

  • albo||

    I'm pretty sure the average British shop girl out with her friends on a Friday night could outdrink any one of us.

  • Jimmers1||

    Removing the early closing was partly to stop people drinking a lot, quickly just before closing time, then all being chucked out on to the street at the same time. Recipe for fighting. In theory venues can close at different times, staggering the times drunk people are on the streets. Not sure if it really works as intended, but often people are now so drunk they can't fight anymore. Just puke everywhere...

  • Hackmaschine Mutter||

    The Nanny State, Prohibitionist controlling govt, haven't read history or think it won't happen this time! They missed the part about creating bootleg alcohol, more potent alcohol, crime, death etc,. This becomes a complete WTF moment.

  • Jerryskids||

    "We don't know what's going to happen now. It might have all kinds of effects we haven't predicted."

    You know how government works - we'll burn that bridge when we come to it.

  • Longtobefree||

    In desperation, they might look at the history of prohibition in the US - - - - - - - - -

    Worked out rather well except for creating a huge criminal class and lots of deaths.

  • sarcasmic||

    Worked out rather well except for creating a huge criminal class and lots of deaths.

    Eggs. Omelets.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Think of the money they'll save when the NHS just has to pay for body bags instead of long-term care for chronic disease! Yay socialized medicine!

  • Longtobefree||

    A study using the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model suggests that the new price floor could save 392 lives within five years and lead to 8,000 fewer hospital admissions.

    Did that study include the deaths and injuries from the upcoming riots?

  • Hackmaschine Mutter||

    Of course not, VooDoo science can't predict human behavior.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Occupy Tennents?

  • Moo Sharpton||

    I like how going where things are less expensive, i.e. doing the best thing for you and your family, is "gaming the system." Come on, the money belongs to the state. Be grateful for what they let you keep.

  • Rhywun||

    NYC pulls this shit with cigarettes. I'm sure the extra tax dollars are totally unintended.

  • Juice||

    The extra chokings are a bonus.

  • NoVaNick||

    After Eric Garner, the NYPD commissioner basically said that his death was not unjustified because cigarette taxes are "an important revenue source" for the city. At least he didn't say the usual "protect the children" BS/

  • Rossami||

    Good lord, just when I start to believe that people in government couldn't get any stupider...

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Taxing Scottish people's alcohol, huh. Bold strategy.

  • perlchpr||

    So, is this situation more of a "there are more nanny-statists in Scotland than there are poor drinkers", "poor drinkers in Scotland never go to the polls anyway so the politicians just don't care what they think", or just a combination of both equally?

  • NoVaNick||

    The Scottish National Party are socialists and are very pro-EU/anti-Brexit. Maybe the hooch tax will convince their base otherwise.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    This is why you can shove your socialized medicine up alongside your next colonoscopy. Beyond prohibition and soda taxes, the nannies and the federal bean counters will quickly outlaw any "unhealthy" behavior (which we now know includes just sitting). I guess we should look forward to mandatory morning calisthenics and dental floss inspectors.

  • NoVaNick||

    Actually heard on NPR this morning that some health insurance companies are reviewing your social media feeds presumably to help guide your healthcare, but the guy they were interviewing said it certainly could be used to determine rates based on behavior. So go ahead now and scrub all the photos of you smoking/boozing/ devouring that cheeseburger and replace them with selfies from the gym.

  • Brandybuck||

    Europe. We should be more like them.

  • Sevo||

    "The policy has good intentions:"

    Hell? Why, yes, sir. Just continue to your left; you'll find it soon enough.

  • Longtobefree||

    Easy to find, the road is paved - - - - - - -

  • Eddy||

    Can they at least get cheap Scotch in a can?

  • Enemy of the State||

    Hey Scotland, why not just implement alcohol prohibition? Who cares what it costs if your intentions are pure?

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