Public Health with a Side of Tyranny

Welcome-to-ScotlandWe celebrated Thanksgiving this past week, and as our table was attended by a close relation who recently celebrated 18 months of sobriety our occasion was a dry feast (not the turkey – which was deliciously moist – just the lack of Hooch).  It was joyfully dry in fact, as all of us in the HoochLaw household are quite impressed with this accomplishment and want to do everything we can to celebrate the achievement and support the effort.  When a loved one has struggled with addiction, recovery is something genuinely worthy of thankfulness.

Of course, the struggle with alcohol abuse and addiction is not something that has afflicted only members of the HoochLaw family.  It is – generally speaking – a problem to various degrees throughout the alcohol drinking world.  And the amount of hooch consumed in different parts of the world, and by different groups within those locales, is often dictated by culture.  For example, we might expect different drinking behaviors by residents of a U.S. college fraternity than residents of an Italian retirement community.  At least I hope so – the mental image of an aging Sophia Loren performing a kegstand is a bit troubling.

Whatever the cultural component, governments, NGOs and charitable organizations have for some time been organizing efforts against overconsumption.  That effort continues today.  As discussed previously, Scottish authorities have been seeking to implement a minimum unit pricing system for alcohol.  That effort recently reached a head when Scotland’s highest court – the Court of Session – last month rejected a legal challenge to the law by the Scotch Whiskey Association.  That challenge sought to invalidate the law on the grounds (in part) that it was in contravention of EU law (a view which may be shared by European courts themselves).

With this challenge rejected, the SWA has now applied to appeal the case to the UK Supreme Court.  As a purely intellectual exercise, this HoochLawyer wonders how claims based (at least in part) on the concept that the regulation violates EU law will be received as the country hurtles toward Brexit.  Mootness could come into play.

But secondarily, I continue to struggle with the MUP concept itself.  By all accounts, implementation of the measure will cause the prices of the least expensive alcohol (which we suspect are the types and brands most commonly abused) to increase the most.  All things being equal, that is perhaps a good thing as it may discourage problem consumption.  [This assumes that we accept the results of studies of price elasticity in alcoholic beverages.]  But all things are not equal – and if the SWA’s arguments are true, then the implementation of MUP in Scotland may be expected to raise the price of all alcoholic beverages in that country – even those which are unlikely to be the subject of abuse.

And that is really the problem, isn’t it?  If MUP is implemented then responsible Scottish consumers may be asked to pay more for their hooch simply because the government has imposed pricing measures intended to curb the behavior of other – irresponsible – consumers.  And while we all might be willing to incur a bit of expense or inconvenience (e.g., my dry Thanksgiving table) to support the efforts of a loved one, a close friend or even an acquaintance with a drinking problem it is entirely another thing to have our government tell us that we must do that to support those individuals (or complete strangers) who may not be making or even be interested in making such a personal effort.

To force the responsible majority of consumers to bear the costs of the irresponsible few smacks of tyranny.  But consumers – especially the responsible ones given that pesky supply/demand curve – will indeed decide to buy less hooch.  In fact, perhaps the largest groups likely to maintain their purchasing habits are those consumers suffering from alcohol dependency and those consumers who are sufficiently well-heeled (addicted or not) that the pricing changes make little difference in their purchasing patterns.  So manufacturers will suffer as the majority of consumers scale back their purchases and those who are truly addicted remain so.

Is this good policy?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.