How many of you knew that alcohol is substantially more expensive than at any time in the 20th century – even when taking into account inflation? As the Con Dems mull over a minimum price for alcohol – a move that even New Labour deemed an inappropriate imposition upon working people during a recession – they will be comforted by how well embedded the cheap booze myth has become. As articles in virtually every publication, from The Observer to The Daily Fail illustrate, the idea that we live in the epoch of cheap booze is now taken as a given.
Right now, you are probably whether you ought to believe that haircut-needing-rapscallion known as Reuben against all those serious soundings articles and experts. Surely they are not just making it up? Well, the answer actually lies in the cloudy concepts that alcohol experts tend to use. The statistic that the World Health Organisation (see page 6) and public health professionals like to emphasise is the “affordability” of alcohol – despite (or more likely because of) the fact that it is a less than transparent concept. The fact that alcohol is more affordable does not mean that it is cheaper – even relative to the general level of prices – despite lazy hacks sometimes translating it this way. All it means is that the the cost of a can of beer now represents a smaller proportion of the average person’s real income. The reason for this is nothing to do with the price of alcohol per se. It is simply the inevitable consequence of economic growth. Just as purchasing chairs, tables and electricity and virtually every good takes up a smaller proportion of our larger income today than 100 years ago, so does the purchase of alcohol. And surely I am not alone in thinking it is good that fewer people have to choose between regular pub visits and a summer holiday.
In reality, alcohol has actually become more expensive relative to other goods. As the stats from the Institute of Alcohol Studies demonstrate, the price of alcohol has actually increased about 20% faster than the general price level. Over the past 30 years hikes in booze prices have outstripped inflation.
All of this, therefore, opens up the question why the rhetoric of “cheap booze” has become so powerful, despite its dodgy foundations in reality. It is partly because lazy hacks sometimes are too lazy to deconstruct the statistics that Anti-Alcohol campaigners and public health bods send them. Yet it is also because “cheap alcohol” carries with it a powerful cultural symbolism which is not just about numbers and prices. In our society, drinking is an extremely popular activity, yet it coexists with a continual moral panic about booze. The spectre of cheap booze represents a polite and convenient way to differentiate the good drinkers, sipping a way in pubs-that-aren’t-wetherspoons, from the younger and poorer drinkers who are more likely to get there beer from Tescos. And if affordability simply means that all of us – rich or poor – combine drink with a greater quantity of other goods and services, then I am all for it.