High Spirits: Can We Spend and Tax Our Way to Healthier Drinking?

Listener 28 December, 2002.

Keywords: Health; Regulation & Taxation;

The etching ‘Gin Lane’ by William Hogarth (1697-1764) shows an inebriated woman, ulcers on her legs from under-nourishment, her baby falling from her arms. On the steps below is the skeleton of a man – her fate too. Behind is commerce: the gin shop, the pawn shop and a funeral parlour. Above the arch beside her is written ‘drunk a penny, dead drunk tuppence, straw for free’: there was a kind of host responsibility even in 1750.

In those days, a London labourer could earn about 2 shillings a day, so a penny represented about 20 minutes work. Today a labourer on $10.50 an hour earns $3.50 in that time. On special, ‘light’ spirits (that is 23 percent absolute alcohol) sells at $7.95 for a 1.125 litre bottle, so twenty minutes work buys nine standard drinks (after income tax). The ethanol is cheap because spirits are cheap to produce, while the excise duty is levied at the same rate as for beer and wines ($21.096 a litre of ethanol) rather than the rate for full spirits ($38.422). Moreover it is levied on the basis that the 23 percent light spirits are only 18 percent: almost every fourth drink is excise duty free.

Not that most readers will have imbibed light spirits. Neither have I – for there are limits below which even a researcher need not delve. But I am told that it is liquor to get drunk on, rather than to enjoy in company. It is not certain who drinks the stuff, but you will observe empty bottles in the gutters where the young were promenading the night before.

Teenage drinking is a problem. There has been considerable concern at the lowering of the age of purchase from 20 to 18 in 1999. But their drinking was rising sharply before then. The National Alcohol Survey found the average quantity of ethanol consumed by 14 to 17 year olds doubled between 1995 and 2000. It rose for 18 to 19 year olds also, but fell for the rest of us. It is tough being a teenager as they shift from childhood to maturity. Learning to drink in a mature way must be one of the hardest parts of the transition, since their physiology and social contexts are changing (and, frankly, many of their parents dont set good examples). Providing them with cheap liquor cant help.

As well as clearing up the excise duty anomalies, should we raise the price of ethanol by raising excise duties? Curiously, it would be moderate drinkers who would pay the extra tax, since on the whole they wont reduce their drinking. However the evidence suggests the young and the heavy drinkers (typically 17 to 25 year olds drinking five or more standard drinks in a session) would cut back their consumption. Which would be a good thing, insofar as it reduced harmful drinking.

Perhaps we should change the very purpose of the special excise taxation on alcohol. In the past it has been a ‘sin’ tax to raise revenue. Drinking alcohol need not be sinful (although ‘Gin Lane’ reminds us how it got that reputation). But it can be harmful – very harmful. We should design excise duty to reduce harm, for we know that a higher price of ethanol reduces consumption, especially the most harmful consumption. If it contributes to fiscal revenue, so be it, although non-harmful drinking will pay higher taxes too.

In a way ‘Gin Lane’ is a reason for optimism. The real price of liquor does not seem to have risen that much over the 250 years, but through education and the creation of safe drinking environments and practices, consumption of alcohol today does not appear to cause as much harm as it did then, even though much remains potentially harmful. Higher excise duties are only part of the reason. To help the young we could make anyone who supplies an under-18 year old with liquor responsible for any harm the drinking causes. Responsible supply (by parents and older friends) reduces the harm the young experience, while helping them to learn to imbibe in a mature way. Additionally, we should spend more on public education, targeted at young drinkers and their suppliers, and heavy drinkers. And, yes, I personally favour higher excise duties – even though it impacts on me.

Over the Christmas holiday some immature drinkers will imbibe too much and kill or severely injure themselves or others. Some inebriated young women will get pregnant, or catch an STD making them permanently infertile. We owe our youth a better environment to learn safe, sociable and pleasant drinking. May you experience good health, good friends, and good cheer too.