A boozy debate

2 June 2010
Sarah Campbell blog picWhen a can of lager costs less from a supermarket than a bottle of water, you get the niggling feeling that all is not right with the world. Taste the lager and that view will be reinforced. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has announced its support, in the interest of public health, for a minimum pricing of 50p per unit of alcohol. This has got the drinks industry understandably hot under the collar. The outgoing chairman of Marks & Spencer, Sir Stuart Rose, voiced his opposition to this idea in Decanter magazine, saying it was against the principle of a free market. Besides, he adds, “as an extreme example, if you go back to 1930s America, prohibition doesn't work”. The Wine and Spirit Trade Association supports a ban on the sale of below-cost booze, but also opposes the idea of a minimum price per unit. A spokesman said it would "merely punish the majority of British consumers who drink responsibly". I’m not sure about that. Most “responsible drinkers” in the UK aren’t buying lager at under 30p a can – they’re more likely to be the bottle-of-Merlot-over-dinner types. Even under NICE’s proposed guidelines, the cheapest a bottle of wine would cost is £4.50, hardly more than a drinkable bottle of plonk will cost you now. Anyway, as far as buyers are concerned, any restrictions imposed would be on retail price and alcohol would still be available to buy at cost from suppliers. But if, as NICE, the government and the NHS would hope, the restrictions were to reduce the amount of cheap booze bought, supermarket buyers might find that they have to revisit their relationships with drinks suppliers.
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