Gambling with wine’s prospects

Nobody would willingly defend the merits of crack cocaine. Apart from drug dealers, perhaps. Recently it has been recommended that the maximum stake playable on fixed-odds betting terminals should be reduced from £100 to £30. These casino-style games machines theoretically allow gamblers to bet more than £10,000 every hour, earning them a reputation as the crack cocaine of gambling.

With emotive rhetoric such as that, most people wouldn’t dare disagree. After all, even if the stakes are lowered, the entertainment these games offer stays the same, goes the argument. Bookmakers might protest that reduced revenues will result in shop closures and redundancies, but that is dismissed as a necessary corollary for protecting at-risk gamblers.

But people with gambling addictions can easily find alternative ways to bet their money – via any of the many mobile betting apps, for example. Reducing betting tertminal maximum stakes might seem like a no-brainer, but if you were to extrapolate the argument and ban all forms of gambling, it would simply continue as an illegal, unregulated industry. Much like actual crack cocaine.

There’s an inevitable link with wine, though it’s indirect. In last year’s budget, a higher tax bracket was proposed for white ciders, a category targeted for offering the cheapest alcoholic units on the market. A 3-litre bottle of Frosty Jack’s is currently available at Iceland for the equivalent of 22.5p/unit, whereas the cheapest wine costs 44p/unit. 

But if cheaper drinks were to become more expensive and wine were to end up having the lowest price per unit, it would become just as susceptible to heavy regulation – although nobody seems to be suggesting that countries such as Spain, with zero tax on wine and where the cheapest costs equivalent to 20p/unit, have higher rates of alcoholism.

As with betting terminals, defending a product that is accused of exploiting the weaknesses of the vulnerable is not a comfortable prospect. But there’s a principle at stake and everyone who sells wine for a living should be aware of it. Measures that seek to protect people with addictions are, of course, admirable, but they often treat the symptom, not the cause. Whether it’s gambling, alcohol or crack, experience shows us that restricting availability doesn’t solve the problems of the minority of their abusers.

Related to this issue is a broader question pitting the nanny state against liberal idealism – how much should our right to choose be restricted, even if that choice is self-destructive? Is that a personal responsibility or a societal one?

There are no easy answers to these questions. But with every punitive proposal that goes unchallenged, the wine industry creeps closer to persecution.

Wine has priceless cultural, historical and social value, yet to prohibitionists, all alcohol looks the same. If we want to preserve everything we love about wine, then we need to ensure that legislation against addictive behaviour focuses on root causes, not its superficial manifestations. Perhaps, in that context, crack cocaine isn’t so indefensible after all.

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