Proposed sex and alcohol laws are misguided
Laws to criminalise the purchase of sex and place a floor under alcohol prices are not needed
The case in favour of higher alcohol prices to cut consumption is weak and getting weaker
Sex and alcohol are two of life’s great pleasures. But the purchase of both raises perennially controversial issues. Currently, momentum is building to enact legislation that would criminalise the purchase of the former and set a minimum price for the latter. Neither proposal deserves to make it onto the statute book.
Start with sex. Prostitution is not called the oldest profession for nothing. People in every society over all recorded history have sold and bought sex.
Despite this, a very effective pressure group – Turn Off the Red Light - has lobbied hard to persuade the Government to copy Sweden’s decade-old legislation which criminalises the purchase of sex, rather than the seller. A joint Oireachtas committee recently adopted that position.
In this newspaper last month, Dr Eilís Ward of the department of political science and sociology at NUI Galway methodically demolished the case made by proponents of the Swedish model*.
If lawmakers do want to change prostitution laws, surely a better idea would be to decriminalise it entirely. On a point of principle, why should the State make criminals out of either of two consenting adults because they chose to do something in private that impinges on nobody else’s rights? On pragmatic grounds, for a State that is bust and needs to bring as much black market activity into the formal economy, why not decriminalise it so that those who purchase sex pay VAT and those who sell it pay income tax?
Full decriminalisation would also make the sex industry more transparent which could allow the abomination of people trafficking, whereby human beings are enslaved and subject to repeated and daily rape, be identified and curbed more easily.
If the proposed prohibition of the purchase of sex is based on an entirely unreliable evidence base and unworldly if often well meaning instincts; the proposal to enact a minimum price for alcohol is simply bizarre on a number of levels.
First off, a price floor will raise profits for the sellers of alcohol. To see why, consider a vendor who buys a can of beer wholesale for 50 cent and retails it for €1. If legislation pushed the price to €1.50, the seller would double his profit on every can sold.
State intervention that reduces competition, raises prices and generates “supernormal” profits for those holding (State-granted) licences to sell alcohol is utter folly. The British in March finally realised the sheer stupidity of minimum pricing for alcohol and abandoned plans to introduce it.
If consensus does emerge around discouraging alcohol consumption by pushing up prices then the Government should use the tax system. At least in that way the additional cost to consumers would go to making the State in which they live a little less bust than it is now, rather than enriching drink sellers.
As for the case itself, the downsides of higher prices and the proportionality of intervention far outweigh the benefits.
Most people enjoy alcohol in moderation. A State-mandated increase in its price will lessen the quotient of enjoyment for hundreds of thousands of people who take a tipple each week by making it less affordable to them. That is a clear downside to higher alcohol process, whether that happens via minimum pricing or higher taxes.
Higher prices will also drive more money out of the domestic economy, as shoppers drive North and sail to the continent to avail of lower prices outside this jurisdiction.
Yet another downside of higher prices is a likely increase in smuggling and counterfeiting, as has happened in the case of cigarettes and is already happening in the case of drink. Earlier this month the revenue commissioners report a huge increase in the quantities of counterfeit alcohol seized this year.
The case in favour of higher prices to cut consumption is weak and getting weaker. Per capita alcohol consumption has been trending downwards for a decade and some of the “negative externalities” of alcohol consumption are disappearing. Among the most serious side effects are deaths on the roads owing to drunk driving. But stronger penalties, better enforcement and awareness-raising road safety campaigns have contributed to reducing radically Ireland’s road deaths per million people to the point that the rate is now less half that of the US and 25 per cent below the EU average.
The pressure to introduce a floor for drink prices comes from people who are as well-meaning as the Turn Off the Red Light group. But both are misguided in the laws they propose. Neither should be enacted.