Scotland Finds That Banning Multiple Purchases Doesn’t Stop Consumption

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In order to stop people from overindulging, Scotland passed the Alcohol Act 2010 and it took effect in October 2011. One of the things it did was to ban “promotional tactics such as buy-one-get-one-free (BOGOFs)” along with other similar measures “because it was believed by some in the Scottish government that multi-buy promotions encouraged a greater consumption of alcohol.” Not surprisingly, the alcohol industry warned that such measure wouldn’t work.

Despite warnings by the drinks trade that legislating against certain retailing techniques would fail to address the root causes of alcohol misuse, Scotland went ahead with the multi-buy ban, requiring retailers with outlets across the UK to employ different selling techniques for alcohol in shops north of the Scottish border.

So the Department of Health Policy Research Programme (Policy Research Unit in Behaviour and Health) conducted a study to determine the effectiveness of the ban. The main findings were that they didn’t work — shock, surprise. “Controlling for general time trends and household heterogeneity, there was no significant effect of the multi-buy ban in Scotland on volume of alcohol purchased either for the whole population or for individual socio-economic groups.” In addition, there “was also no significant effect on those who were large pre-ban purchasers of alcohol.” Since “[m]ost multi-buys were for beer and cider or for wine,” people were simply forced to shop with greater frequency. “The frequency of shopping trips involving beer and cider purchases increased by 9.2% following the ban, while the number of products purchased on each trip decreased by 8.1%. For wine, however, these effects were not significant.”

Their conclusion was that “[b]anning multi-buy promotions for alcohol in Scotland did not reduce alcohol purchasing in the short term.” You’d think at this point that policymakers would realize that trying to stop people from buying as much alcohol at one time as they want would do nothing except inconvenience adult purchasers of products they’re legally entitled to buy and consume. As they discovered, what any person with common sense could have told them, prohibitions of almost any kind will not work. Responsible people will remain responsible no matter the situation they’re faced with and people predisposed to overindulge or abuse themselves with alcohol will find a way to do so. Didn’t thirteen years of Prohibition make that abundantly clear? Yet all this type of regulation accomplishes is to punish the law-abiding, responsible adults who want to enjoy a legal adult beverage. Prohibitionists keep placing hurdles in front of them in misguided belief that they’re helping society, when all they’re really doing is making life a little more difficult for everybody without actually solving the problem they’re claiming to be tackling.

Which is why even the folks who conducted this study can’t help themselves, when one of their conclusions is to suggest what’s needed is not a new or different approach. Instead, they fall back on the same old things that aren’t working. “Wider regulation of price promotion and price may be needed to achieve this.” Sure, keep throwing gasoline on the fire. That should fix it. As far as I can tell, it’s an institutional failure to be able to see the perceived problem in anything but the same old tropes. Because they sound good on paper, one presumes, they keep trying the same policies and keep arguing for the same old policy changes even though it’s demonstrated time and time again that they not only don’t work, but actually make life a little worse for a majority of people. Maybe it’s time we stopped listening to the prohibitionists? They obviously think nothing of punishing all of society in the mistaken belief that people will then drink less, even though it’s perfectly legal for adults to enjoy alcohol. They don’t care that a majority of people drink alcohol in moderation and responsibly, they’re all about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It’s their modus operandi. But it’s not working.

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