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Advanced Critical Writing

Introduction

The article entitled “Minimum Unit Pricing for Alcohol and Civil Liberty” argues against the Government’s proposed implementation of a minimum unit price for alcohol in an attempt to reduce the sale and consumption of cheap, alcohol beverages, and suggests that such a policy would infringe on the British people’s civil liberties.

The article begins by describing a provoking scene of alcohol laden youngsters and “loud old men” swarming the streets of England’s cities. The author claims that binge drinking has increased over the past years, which has prompted the Government to consider a minimum unit price of 45 pence in order to reduce the sale of cheap alcohol.

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The author’s claim about binge drinking is backed up by the literature with findings that British young people are some of the worst perpetrators of binge drinking (Kuntsche, Rehm and Gmel, 2004) and that almost a quarter of British adults are classified as ‘hazardous’ drinkers (NHS, 2011). In a recent presentation to parliament, David Cameron wrote that “we have to tackle the scourge of violence caused by binge drinking. And we have to do it now.” (Home Office, 2012). Alcohol is undoubtedly a public health issue and is involved in a high number of road traffic accidents and anti-social activities such as assault, as well as being associated with a number of chronic diseases including alcoholic liver disease and a range of cancers (Rehm et al., 2009; Schutze et al., 2011). Furthermore, the economic cost can be devastating with alcohol-related injury costing the National Health Service (NHS) around ?2.7 billion a year, based on 2006 to 2007 figures (NHS, 2011). Therefore, the Government should indeed feel some responsibility to tackle and reduce these figures if at all possible.

The author argues that such a strategy as minimum unit pricing for alcohol will be an infringement on the British people, a violation of the free market economy and will cause moderate and responsible drinkers to pay for the “crimes of a few.” However, the author later contradicts themselves saying that “boosting the cost [of alcohol] isn’t going to stop me drinking, it’s going to just leave me out of pocket.” Here, the author has gone from the extreme and dramatic to an almost mocking of the proposed policy. It becomes unclear whether the author truly believes that the policy would severely affect the innocent or whether it would simply leave people short of a few pounds at the end of the month. This type of contradictory writing can also been seen elsewhere in the article. For example, the writer opens the article with a murky and sinister scene using evocative words and phrases such as “swarming”, “staggering” and “teenagers hunched over a bottle of Frosty Jacks.” This use of language suggests that the author is disgusted and repelled by binge drinkers and the open consumption of cheap alcohol on British streets. However, the author quickly goes on to denounce Government attempts to tackle the problem as a “crazy idea”, once again sending out a mixed message to the reader.

The author also argues against the claim that an increase in prices for drinks with a high alcohol content will put off the type of people who buy such drinks purely to achieve a state of drunkenness, namely individuals suffering from alcoholism. The author asks “isn’t it their choice to drink alcohol?” and suggests that it is unacceptable to hurt the average person financially by trying to price such individuals out of the alcohol market. This an extremely reductionist viewpoint, meaning that the author of the article is reducing the plight of an alcoholic to the result of just “their choice” rather than taking into account the plethora of reasons that can lead an individual down the destructive road of alcoholism, such as homelessness, debt or abuse. Such a view-point is potentially damaging as Spanagel (2009) has warned that a reductionist view of the causes of alcoholism can stand in the way of a better understanding of the underlying pathological processes involved in such addictive behaviour.

The author goes on to claim that implementation of a ?0.45 minimum unit price for alcohol is the result of the Government’s attempt to try and make revenue from people who can afford a price rise but are just inconvenienced by it. This is an extreme accusation and the author has failed to take into account the evidence that suggests otherwise. Namely that such a policy could have a positive effect on public health and the economy. Using a price-to-consumption model using various data sources and based on 54 population sub-groups classed as harmful, hazardous or moderate drinkers, Purshouse et al. (2010) estimated that a ?0.45 minimum price unit for alcohol would reduce alcohol consumption by 4.5% and avoid 1,970 alcohol-related deaths. A recent systematic review found that a price increase of alcohol by around 10% would lead to a reduction in consumption of alcohol by around 5% (Wagenaar, Tobler and Komro, 2010). Both of these studies have provided strong evidence that a minimum unit pricing strategy with alcohol would be effective in reducing hazardous alcohol consumption. Further strengthening the argument in favour of minimum unit pricing are doubts that other attempts to reduce alcohol consumption will be far from successful. In a recent editorial, McKee (2012) highlighted that the three main “lines of attack” for tackling hazardous drinking consist of marketing, pricing and availability. Marketing and restrictions on availability are difficult to control, especially due to the lobbying power that many companies within the alcohol industry possess (McKee, 2012), and education-based interventions have been shown to be ineffective (Anderson, Chisholm and Fuhr, 2009) Therefore, pricing appears to be potentially the most effective and most easily manipulated element that the Government can utilise to tackle hazardous drinking. However, in addition to the positive effects that a minimum pricing policy has been predicted to have, there were also a number of drawbacks. For example, an increase in type 2 diabetes in young women was predicted due to a loss of the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption and most of the reductions in harm would have been seen in chronic disorders in the over 45s, limiting the positive effect on the health and well-being of younger people (Purshouse et al., 2010). Furthermore, the figures produced by Purshouse et al. (2010) were based on a time period 10 years after policy implementation, suggesting that the benefit of a minimum pricing policy could be a long time coming. These drawbacks could be seen to support the author’s claim that the Government would use a minimum pricing strategy primarily to increase their income, seeing as though implementation of the policy would be limited in its immediate and overall beneficial effects on public health. Furthermore, alternatives to minimum pricing such as increasing tax on alcohol, have also been found to decrease levels of alcohol consumption (Elder et al., 2010). However, the existence of potentially equally as effective strategies for tackling hazardous drinking does not automatically suggest a conspiracy by the Government to reap more revenue through a minimum pricing strategy.

The author of the article disagrees with the claim that alcohol fuels crime and with the figure that intoxicated people are involved in causing around 5,000 avoidable crimes every year. However, it is well documented that alcohol is prolifically involved in crime. From 1998 to 1999, 70% of crimes were found to have involved alcohol (Home Office, 2001), with alcohol being a component in up to 70% of all stabbings and beatings, 40% of domestic violence incidents and 50% of child protection cases (Alcohol Concern, 2000). These figures are highly disturbing and the author’s credibility is severely damaged in denying belief in such figures.

The author ends the article with a rhetorical question by asking whether we would want “to live in a free country where people live as their consciences tell them” or whether we want to try and “control the behaviour of the poor by pricing them out of activities that we disapprove of?” A similar use of rhetoric can be seen throughout the article. For example, the author suggests that the next stage after minimum unit pricing may be an increase in theatre tickets to reduce the number of “poorer, less educated people who might talk during the show.” This is an example of hyperbole where the author is exaggerating in order to manipulate their audience and create a strong emotional reaction. Through the use of rhetoric, the author will hope to encourage their audience to ‘come round’ to their way of thinking. However, the article would be far more persuasive if the author were to use more facts and empirical evidence to support their views.

In conclusion, the article is well-written in terms of persuasiveness and in using rhetoric to create a strong emotional reaction in the audience. However, the author too often makes statements that contradict current empirical evidence without justification, which damages the credibility of the source.

References

Alcohol Concern (2000) Britain’s Ruin: Meeting Government Objectives via a National Alcohol Strategy. London, UK: Alcohol Concern.

Anderson, P., Chisholm, D. and Fuhr, D.C. (2009) Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of policies and programmes to reduce the harm caused by alcohol. Lancet, 373, pp. 2234-2246.

Elder, R.W., Lawrence, B., Ferguson, A., Naimi, T.S., Brewer, R.D., Chattopadhyay, S.K., Toomey, T.L. and Fielding, J.E. (2010) The effectiveness of tax policy interventions for reducing excessive alcohol consumption and related harms. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 38(2), pp. 217-229.

Home Office (2012) The Government’s Alcohol Strategy. London, UK: Home Office.

Home Office (2001) Fighting Violent Crime Together: An Action Plan. London, UK: Home Office.

Kuntsche, E., Rehm, J. and Gmel, G. (2004) Characteristics of binge drinkers in Europe. Social Science and Medicine, 59, pp. 113-127.

McKee, M. (2012) Minimum unit pricing for alcohol – the case for action is overwhelming. European Journal of Public Health, 22(4), pp. 451.

NHS (2011) Statistics on Alcohol: England, 2011. London, UK: The NHS Information Centre.

Purshouse, R.C., Meier, P.S., Brennan, A., Taylor, K.B. and Rafia, R. (2010) Estimated effect of alcohol pricing policies on health and health economic outcomes in England: an epidemiological model. Lancet, 375, pp. 1355-1364.

Rehm, J., Mathers, C., Popova, S., Thavorncharoensap, M., Teerawattananon, Y. and Patra, J. (2009) Global burden of disease and injury and economic cost attributable to alcohol use and alcohol-use disorders. Lancet, 373, pp. 2223-2233.

Schutze, M., Boeing, H., Pischon, T. et al. (2011) Alcohol attributable burden of incidence of cancer in eight European countries based on results from prospective cohort study. British Medical Journal, 342, d1584.

Spanagel, R. (2009) Alcoholism: A systems approach from molecular physiology to addictive behaviour. Physiological Reviews, 89(2), pp. 649-705.

Wagenaar, A.C., Tobler, A.L. and Komro, K.A. (2010) Effects of alcohol tax and price policies on morbidity and mortality: a systematic review. American Journal of Public Health, 100, pp. 2270-2278.

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