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Alcohol Abuse and the Flat Tax Debate

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

The debate over whether to apply a flat tax to alcohol continues to rage just as it has for decades. Yet despite a lot of influential voices calling for the implementation of a flat tax, we don't seem to be any closer to realising that goal. According to Christopher Snowdon, Telegraph contributor and Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, it's time to change that. It is time to implement a flat alcohol tax and start reaping the benefits of doing so.

Proponents of the flat tax idea say there are lots of reasons it should be implemented. Those reasons include, among other things, levelling the playing field between cheaper, stronger drinks and their weaker, more expensive counterparts. The goal here is to remove the incentive to drink excessively by making it more costly to do so.

Would a flat tax work? Consider that a unit of alcohol in a glass of whisky is taxed at 28p under the current system. That same unit of alcohol in a pint of cider is taxed at just 8p. Cider that comes in a little bit stronger might be taxed at 7p. There's an obvious problem here as pointed out by the Alcohol Health Alliance: high strength, white cider products are consumed primarily by under-age drinkers because they cost so little.

Stop and think about the implications of that for just one minute. While we are battling what appears to be an epidemic of adolescent alcohol abuse, we're also making it possible for young people to buy some of the strongest alcohol products at the lowest prices possible. It's almost as though we are inviting them to drink.

Make Alcohol Abuse More Expensive

Analyses by Snowdon and others conclude that applying a flat tax to alcohol – which is to say, taxing it by the unit instead of the beverage in which it is found – would result in higher prices for alcoholic beverages more in line with what drinkers pay in other European countries. Drinkers would still pay fewer alcohol taxes overall, though the actual cost of drinking would go up.

If that analysis is correct, a flat tax will result in making it more costly to abuse alcohol. It would also continue to fund alcohol abuse programmes around the UK. Snowdon suggests a rate of 9p per unit of alcohol. Given statistics that show approximately 50 billion units of alcohol sold each year in the UK, a tax of 9p would more than cover the £4.6 billion we now spend on alcohol-related costs in healthcare, police services, and so on.

Alcohol continues to be the most abused drug in the UK among drinkers of all ages. Our current system of taxation doesn't seem to make a lot of sense in light of our ongoing fight against alcohol abuse. So perhaps the supporters of a flat tax are right. Perhaps it's time to come up with a more sensible system.

Sources:

  1. Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/15/time-flat-tax-alcohol-health-campaigners-can-drink/
  2. Alcohol Health Alliance – https://www.basl.org.uk/uploads/Cheap%20alcohol%20the%20price%20we%20pay%20AHA%20Oct%202016.pdf
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