Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Wine sippers, vodka sluggers, beer quaffers and some comparative culture

The Humble Economist has made my day by posting on the topic of the Polish Beer Lovers’ Party (PPPP). The group was formed in the early nineties, by the satirist Janusz Rewinski, with the declared aim of encouraging Poles to drink beer rather than vodka. It won 16 seats in the 1991 election and although it has since dissolved, its former members can take heart from the buoyant state of the Polish beer industry.

Ironically, given the perception that many of Britain’s health problems are fuelled by a fondness for beer, in much of northern and eastern Europe its consumption is viewed as a healthy life choice. Three Thousand Versts’ medical team confirms that vodka drinking is statistically more likely to result in alcoholism and it is more probable that the spirit will contribute to digestive problems, due to its acidity.

In Russia, Ukraine, and indeed Poland, beer is popular amongst young people and ‘beerhalls’ have become trendy venues. Admittedly, it is also drunk throughout the day, from breakfast time, as if it were a soft drink. The ‘vodka belt’ clearly hasn’t achieved instant success in its attempts to curb alcoholism by edging towards a beer drinking culture.

Still, there’s something to be said for the Humble Economist’s view that beer drinking societies need not necessarily exhibit more problems with alcohol than societies in which wine is the tipple of choice. He advocates lowering the legal drinking age to 16 for licensed premises, an arrangement which seems to work in Holland. The idea would be to encourage teenagers to become acquainted with alcohol in a controlled setting, rather than, presumably, on a park bench.

It is a seductive thought that 16-18 year olds, policed by responsible landlords, might choose to learn the art of sophisticated conversation whilst growing accustomed to the subtle pleasures of half a bitter. However, with a pint in a pub costing upwards of £3, I’m not sure that the plan would prove effective, on its own.


humbleeconomist said...

Thank-you for the mention, and I'm overjoyed that I made your day! :)

I think Holland only lowers the purchasing age for drinks of an alcoholic content lower than 15% ABV.

The crucial point, and one that I think may be too illiberal for British tastes, is that Holland restricts the sale of alcohol to over 18s to licensed premises only - I suspect in much the same way as certain other more infamous activities are.

For an example of a Vodka-belt country that seemingly deals with drinking problems well, I recommend looking at Sweden. Although fairly illiberal, the system seems to work - other than drinks below a certain very low ABV level, booze is sold only by a state-run monopoly which can therefore control the alcohol consumption of the nation.

However, conscious of the fact that Swedes engage in silent, subtle pride in their systems (and in many cases rightly so!), I do not know if they experience some of the pitfalls that could be associated with it: such as an incentive towards corruption, putting other alcohol industries out of business, fostering a significant and dangerous black market, etc. etc.

I agree entirely with you on the point of such a reform being insufficient to drastically curb teenage bingeing, particularly in the short-term - but I hope that it may be useful in terms of its long-term effects and the culture it will foster.

Being 18, however, I can assure you that pubs are frequented, well, frequently.. and that teenagers will often break the bank for the sake of a night out supplemented by drink.
The demand is certainly there, and is often driven "underground", with effects that are unsurprisingly common when it comes to prohibition, though perhaps not as serious as those associated with illegal drugs ( or should I say 'other drugs'?)

It is however fascinating that you essentially raise the issue of alcohol taxes being too high in the last paragraph - something that they certainly weren't designed to be! I take your point, but I think teenagers will tend to spend it anyway, given the opportunity, particularly if they would otherwise have spent it elsewhere and on something more powerful, along with the added perceived costs associated with the risks taken in procuring illegally purchased alcohol.

In other words, from experience alone, I suspect that demand for alcohol is still fairly price inelastic for teenagers, despite their lower incomes, and it's just a matter of shifting that already existing market to where demand can be exercised both moderately and sensibly.

Thanks again - it's a fascinating subject,

Yours humbly.

Chekov said...

Thanks for your comments HE.

It is however fascinating that you essentially raise the issue of alcohol taxes being too high in the last paragraph - something that they certainly weren't designed to be!

I would contend that there is a mismatch between off licence prices and pub prices and pubs are closing as a result. I take your point though that often people choose to spend the money anyway.