Saturday 15 October 2011

Higher Strength Beer Duty - My View

Here are my thoughts about the introduction of Higher Strength Beer Duty, as published this week in Off Licence News

You can read the rationale behind the tax here


The strong beer tax seems to have happened without any real reaction from the mainstream media. It's true that it was reported fairly widely at the time it was announced, but only really as a governmental policy rather than as anything that might actually affect the way that beer is perceived. It's seen as tax on binge drinking, which if you stop and analyse it for even a second, is clearly bollocks (excuse my Anglo-Saxon, but there's no other word for it). As someone who has finally learned the error of drinking more than a couple of bottles of Duvel at a sitting, it's quite clear that the stronger the beer, the less able you are to 'binge' on it. Indeed, there is an argument to made that the stronger the beer, the harder it is to drink in quantity, not just because of the higher %abv, but also that it renders you incapable with alarming swiftness. Beers like that are no use at all for a long evening in the pub.

Around 15% of the beers that we sell will be affected by the tax. At the top end (in strength terms), the strongest Belgians have seen an increase of 50p to 75p. That's a pretty drastic rise, and it remains to be seen how sales will suffer. Will people switch to lower strength beers, as is the government's wish, or will they just complain and pay up. I can remember lots of people saying that they would stop smoking when cigarettes reached a fiver a packet. They didn't.

The tax is a fudge, a farce, a fiasco. It's a cowardly, nonsensical tax that sets out to address a problem that barely exists, and will fail to make a difference, other than to those who sell stronger beer for a living. And by stronger beer, I don't specifically mean the sort of higher-strength industrial beer that the tax sets out to address, but imported beers from Europe and North America. Perhaps ironically, the British brewing industry will be largely unaffected, and the sort of beers that people actually do go out and drink all day won't be affected.

You could also make a spirited argument that rather than a blanket tax on all strong beer, the government may have been better off deciding what beers it wants to tax, and figuring out a way to accurately do that. If doesn't require too much imagination to realise that if you want to penalise the producers of strong, industrially produced beer, then what you need to do is pass legislation decreeing that if your output of a certain beer in this strength bracket exceeds X hectolitres, then an additional duty of Y is payable on it. Not hard, is it?

Regardless of all this, I'm not sure that strong beer is necessarily the cheapest way of getting drunk. The late Michael Jackson (no, not that one) famously described beer as an inefficient means of getting drunk, and he's right. It seems odd that beer is in a minority as an alcoholic drink that is taxed per degree of alcohol. Almost everything else has a flat rate, or at best, a dual-rate banding of 'ordinary' and 'stronger' versions. Strong beer is already taxed more purely by virtue of being stronger – taxing it more isn't going to make any difference to how people consume it, and will almost certainly encourage a switch to something a bit more efficient. That's an uneasy truth, and one that is too hard to address, and so we must all pay with a broad-brush solution.