The Soft Option?

Do high soft drink prices encourage drink-driving?

The argument is often advanced that high soft drink prices in pubs act as an encouragement to drink-driving, and on the face of it this sounds like a good point. But does it really stand up to a more detailed analysis?

There are two aspects to this issue:

  1. whether soft drinks are really more expensive than alcoholic ones,
  2. assuming that they are, does this act as an incentive to drink-driving?

I will deal with the second point first, as it is the most crucial.

There are various reasons why people choose to drink soft drinks in a pub:

  • They never consume alcohol anyway
  • They are under the legal age for consuming alcoholic drinks
  • They are avoiding alcohol on medical advice
  • They prefer the taste of soft drinks
  • They are simply not in the mood for an alcoholic drink
  • They are choosing to avoid alcohol on this particular occasion because they are doing something afterwards (work, perhaps) where they feel it may affect their concentration
  • They are choosing to avoid alcohol on this particular occasion because they are driving and feel it may affect their driving ability
From this it can be seen that a large majority of those choosing soft drinks will be doing so for reasons other than avoiding drink-driving, and in almost all cases, people will have made a decision whether to buy a soft drink or an alcoholic one before entering the pub. Price does not enter into the equation, and the prices charged inside will not affect their choice of drink. Also, given that, in social settings, drinks are usually bought in rounds, saving money is not normally a factor in deciding what to drink, except perhaps in avoiding conspicuously expensive items. The only price-conscious customers are solitary individuals drinking alcohol.

At the same time, to the hard-core drink-drive offender, alcohol is a crucial part of his behaviour, so even if soft drinks were completely free it would not make any difference. One-off offenders, on the other hand, are likely to have been drinking at a gathering such as an office party where all drinks were free at the point of consumption and therefore price played no part one way or the other.

It must also be remembered that having one or two alcoholic drinks is unlikely to lead to an offence being committed - that requires at least three drinks, possibly more. So it is not a simple choice between soft and alcoholic drinks when entering the pub, but a choice of how much alcohol to consume.

So the only circumstance where a differential in prices could conceivably encourage a drink-drive offence is where someone who was prepared to drink at least some alcohol before driving, was very price-conscious, and was staying in the pub for at least three drinks, was motivated to continue on alcohol rather than switching to soft drinks to save money. Realistically, that is simply not a credible scenario. Even if we accept that soft drinks are often more expensive than alcoholic ones, 30 or 40p on a pint of Coke is not going to make the difference between risking committing an offence, and avoiding the risk.

I would be very surprised if the excuse had ever even been offered in defence that "I stayed on beer because the lemonade was dearer", and if it was it would be laughed out of court.

But are soft drinks really more expensive than alcoholic ones anyway?

It is certainly true that, in all pubs, it is possible to buy some soft drinks, such as pure orange juice, that are more expensive by volume than most draught beers. It is also often the case that big-brand soft drinks such as Coke or Pepsi are more expensive per unit of volume than the cheaper draught beers. A pint of Coke might cost more than a pint of mild or standard bitter.

But this ignores the fact that, in general, people do not drink soft drinks in the same quantities as draught beer, and even if they bought the odd pint, they would not be matching beer drinkers pint-for-pint throughout an evening. The soft drinker is unlikely to end up paying anywhere near as much as his alcohol-drinking colleagues. There are also some soft drinks available in every pub, such as orange squash and lime-and-soda, that are virtually never more expensive in volume terms than draught beers.

Overall, pubs sell a range of both soft and alcoholic products, in varying volumes. Taking a representative selection of each, in the quantities normally purchased, the soft drinks will be markedly cheaper, on average, than the alcoholic ones. There will always be some anomalies, but in broad terms soft drinks are not more expensive than alcoholic ones.

A further argument is that, even if soft drinks are cheaper, pub operators often apply higher mark-ups than they do to alcoholic drinks, because they are not subject to duty. Undoubtedly this is true for many products. But, in a free, competitive market, those running businesses are entitled to charge whatever mark-ups they like, provided there isn't a strong public interest reason why they shouldn't. And, in the case of drink-driving, we have seen that the level of soft drink prices does not, in practice, act as an incentive to break the law. If it did, there might be a case for official regulation of some soft drink prices. But even that, in practice, would have little effect beyond being a visible symbol of commitment. Most pub customers who drink soft drinks are not driving anyway on that particular occasion, and it is not reasonable to expect licensees to offer a whole class of drinks at extremely cheap prices just because for a few customers it is a "responsible" distress purchase.

In fact, I suspect the argument of high soft drink prices encouraging drink-driving is normally advanced by people who do act as designated drivers and maybe feel badly done to because their duty-free Coke is scarcely cheaper than a duty-paid beer. But unless this sorely tempts them to drink alcohol instead it cannot be argued that it is an incentive to drink-driving.

For an individual pub, there are likely to be benefits, both in encouraging trade and appearing socially responsible, to offer some soft drinks at conspicuously low prices, or to provide free soft drinks, or free top-ups, to the driver in alcohol-drinking parties, and to publicise that fact. Given that, in a pub setting, a genuine "Des" (a totally non-drinking driver with three or four companions all drinking alcohol for a prolonged session) is a rarity, the downside to their business will be extremely limited. That kind of publicity is also likely to make drivers who have already chosen to stick to soft drinks feel good about their decision.

(January 2003)

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