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Raising the price of booze saves lives and money. Scotland is right to try it

AMONG man’s earliest artefacts are vessels to store and carry booze. Drunk from Stone Age jugs or Etruscan amphoras, fermented sugars have brought cheer for more than 12,000 years. And headaches too: alcohol stokes rage and gloom as well as jollity and dancing. For liberal-minded types, the downsides are a personal matter””we should be free to frolic.

From The Economist

Within limits. Where the harm extends beyond the individual, there is a case for intervention. Global alcohol consumption is stable. But some people are tippling more, in ways that hurt themselves and others (see  article).

At stake are not just vomit-drenched streets. Deaths linked to drinking have tripled since 1990; in that time alcohol has gone from the sixth to the third leading cause of death and disability worldwide. The bill lands on everyone, as does booze-fuelled violence. Including lost output, the harm from alcohol costs Europe and America around 1.5% of national income.

The problem is worsening. Across the rich world, a small share of the population consumes a large share of the liquor. One reason is that many young people have upped their intake. More drinkers are also bingeing””even in southern Europe, where alcohol used to be taken mainly with food.

All countries have some rules (regarding age, opening hours or place) on drink sales. Many also try to educate the population about the health risks of overdoing it. A big reason for the shifts in drinking habits, though, is that since the mid-1990s booze has become much more affordable in most of the rich world. An Irishman can buy his recommended weekly limit of 21 units of alcohol for little more than an hour’s work at the minimum wage.

The best way to tackle excessive drinking is to raise prices through taxes levied on a drink’s strength, so that the most harmful drinks are more expensive. The resulting price-rise should cut the consumption of hard-up heavy topers (who are particularly partial to dirt-cheap supermarket booze) and young drinkers, who can afford only what’s cheap.

The alcohol industry and its government allies note that intervention would hurt some products such as cheap wine. And pushing up prices is fiscally regressive: it makes more difference to thin wallets than fat ones. But the effect on equality may be small, because poor people also suffer disproportionately from alcohol-induced ailments. Moreover, any regressive effect of the tax rise on drink can be offset with more generous benefits in some other area.

Deck the halls, not each other

The evidence backing higher prices on booze is strong. Several Canadian provinces have already successfully introduced them through taxation and a price floor for a unit of alcohol. Local governments reap much of that revenue through provincial liquor monopolies. After a 10% rise in the average minimum price from 2002 to 2009 in British Columbia, alcohol-related deaths fell by 32%.

Other governments are uncorking similar schemes. Unfortunately, within the European Union the rules do not allow all drinks to be taxed by strength alone. That system should be reformed. In the meantime, Scotland’s devolved government is trying to circumvent the problem. It passed legislation in 2012 to set a minimum price of 50p ($0.80) for a unit of alcohol, which would affect more than half the liquor on sale. That is a less appealing way to raise prices, however, since it would give producers and retailers a windfall, rather than helping pay for the cost that drink imposes on the public. A legal challenge will be heard in February. But if the law is enacted, others may follow””Ireland is keen. The British government rejected the policy in 2013, but has vowed to think again.

Public-health laws often require an unpopular move at the start, but new habits and attitudes can take root surprisingly quickly. A ban on smoking in restaurants and pubs seemed outlandish””until New York City introduced one in 2003. Much of the world quickly followed suit. Even diehard liberals like this newspaper, queasy at first about smoking bans, or mandatory crash helmets and seat belts, would hesitate to scrap those regulations now.

The price of drink falls far short of the toll it takes on those who have to cope with drinkers. In such cases, defenders of free choice and free markets should not be intoxicated by them. Raising the cost of booze-fuelled bad behaviour would bring more joy to the world. Here’s to that.