Monday, March 16, 2009

Softening Us Up For A Booze Tax Hike

Beer drinkers are being softened up for a swingeing tax hike as the government gets itself in a pickle over the price of a pint. Booze is the latest political hot potato but posturing over a pint belies the key cause of binge drinking which ministers are quite happy to sweep under the carpet. It's the ludicrous lax licensing laws, stupid. 

The reason for binge drinking is obvious - the ridiculous relaxation of licensing laws. It's not what you drink but where you buy and drink it. But that would require a massive step change from a government which isn't exactly quick to come forward and say sorry for past mistakes. 

Thanks to New Labour, it's now all style and no substance. A cafe culture, wine bars, gastro pubs. And strictly no smoking.

But we live on a wind swept island in northern Europe. Our staple alcoholic drink is beer like rest of northern Europe. And we like to chat in a cosy public house. 

Some people given half a chance would booze all day. Strict licensing laws were introduced to get the workers to the factories sober rather than sitting in a pub using Huxley's 'chemical crutch' to escape despair and desolation.

Pubs disappeared in a mixture of New Labour political correctness and greed and in came cheap supermarket booze and binge drinking. Now cheap booze from supermarkets is killing the pub and a way of life.

Supermarkets selling cheep beer and wine, high rents and price increases from suppliers, greedy shareholders in the breweries, 24 hour opening and the blanket smoking ban. It's all part of the pub shambles as the glorious vices of pint, a fag and packet of crisps are eroded away. 

The Orange Party believes all the fuss over the price of alcohol as a cure all for all the binge drinking and unhealthy ills is a ruse, a softening up exercise for higher beer taxes.

Imposing a minimum price for alcohol would be illegal probably under the EU rules so beloved of this government, a tax hike wouldn't. 

Last year, chancellor Darling hiked the duty on beer by another 4p a pint, wine by 14p a bottle and spirits by 55p a bottle, 6% above the rate of inflation. 

More importantly, his pre-budget report in November proposed raising the alcohol duty escalator by 8% a year from April. 

The government is bent on embarking on a spending spree on borrowed time and raising indirect taxes is its only solution. 

With all-party support, the hike in alcohol tax can be cunningly presented as a laudable aim to cut the scourge of binge drinking and improve the nation's health. It's not a tax rise at all, more a social necessity. 

Medical chief, Liam Donaldson's, calls for taxes to be raised on alcohol has left Darling nursing a big hangover, with the brewing industry demanding a cut in beer duty.

The chancellor can stop more pubs closing down by ending the escalator in alcohol duty on beer and freezing the beer duty for a year. That's exactly what Brown did for  ten years as chancellor - for the Scottish whisky industry.

But he won't and  the price of alcohol is on the way up. 

Donaldson's aim to stop binge drinking on cheap supermarket booze and force pubs to scrap 'happy hour' cut-price deals is no bad thing but it only meets the problem half way, not confront it head on. 

It's a change in drinking culture that's needed. And that shouldn't be difficult. It only means winding the clock back a few years. 

The way to tackle the problem is to change back the licensing laws, if the government is as serious about binge drinking as it is about increasing the treasury coffers.

Go back to the old laws with alcohol sales highly restricted, to be consumed in licensed pubs between strict, reasonable opening hours. 

The answer to binge drinking and unhealthy over the top boozing, whether it's at home, on the streets or in the pubs, boils down to availability, not price. 

So bring back the 'off-licence', a separate, dedicated easily controlled outlet selling alcohol, instead of the supermarket free-for-all.

But returning to stricter licensing hours and cutting back on the availability of booze might cut consumption and that wouldn't go down at all well in the  treasury.

Picture: William Hogarth, Gin Lane (1751)