Minimum Drink Pricing
19 Jul 2012
Scotland has taken a tough line on alcohol abuse. It is the first country in the UK to pass a bill setting a minimum price of 50p per alcoholic unit. Additionally, a ban on quantity discounts in off-sales will put an end to consumers hoarding booze bought from supermarkets at pocket money prices. A study by Sheffield University into the social effects of the policy is optimistic. Alcohol related hospital visits and crime are predicted to decrease. On these premises it is no surprise that the new measures have the full backing of the Scottish medical industry and police force, whose resources are often stretched by overindulgent drinkers at the weekends.
This sentiment is largely reflected south of the border. Drinkaware’s chief executive Chris Sorek has said that the charity supports any action to reduce alcohol abuse in the UK. Further, the Association of Chief Police Officers lead on alcohol and licensing, Jon Stoddart, supports a minimum unit price (MUP) scheme based on the link between increased consumption and affordability. It would, he says, stem the tide of abuse thus reducing the associated harm. Prime Minister David Cameron ardently favours a bill which sets a MUP of around 40p per alcoholic unit. Current attitudes have given the Coalition Government the impetus to follow Scotland’s example.
Alcohol abuse has reached a stage where it is no longer a fringe issue. The average person is now drinking more than 11 litres of alcohol a year – twice the amount of average consumption in the 1950s. This trend has triggered a number of social issues. Binge drinking and long term heavy drinking are both known to be associated with psychological harm and ill health. In 2010 the Department of Health estimated that 7% of all hospital admissions in England and Wales were alcohol related, extracting £2.7 billion from the NHS budget. Further, excessive drinking poses potential risks to public safety through road accidents and crime. The Sheffield University study expects that setting a MUP might even reduce employee absenteeism by nearly 30,000 sick days. Some argue that a change to the law clears people’s hazy heads, stems wastage of NHS funds, and makes society more functional.
In particular, the price change and discount ban is likely to bring an end to the custom of picking up huge quantities of drink from off-traders at a level proportionately cheaper than water. This so-called front loading culture is prevalent amongst younger consumers. They buy from supermarkets and off licences and end up having too much to drink before going out. Not only are these binge sessions the face of Britain’s alcohol woes, the pubs themselves are placed under huge financial pressure to compete with off-traders. Supermarkets can cross-subsidise drink sales with other products that consumers buy. The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers has welcomed the introduction of MUP precisely because the policy aims to address the imbalance between off-traders and on-traders.
Nevertheless, some associations are sceptical of the policy’s effectiveness. There will be a squeeze on consumers because the MUP is designed to make some types of alcohol less affordable. For example, 4x440ml of a supermarket branded strong cider amounts to 9.3 units. Costing £1.80, the price per unit is 20p. Employing a 50p rate increases the price by £2.87. This is perceived as particularly unjust on low income consumers who drink responsibly at home. Very often the purchase of alcohol in a supermarket forms part of a regular shop and it is taken home to drink over a period of time, or shared. In this context, the policy is unlikely to be well received because it comes across as a punitive tax.
Additionally, Drinkaware has expressed concerns that the proposed alcohol strategy is only addressing the immediate symptoms and not the underlying problems. While price is a factor which influences drinking, the source of changing people’s behaviour is tackling attitudes towards alcohol. Society is generally aware of the health risks arising from binge drinking and long term drinking, but many of us continue to find excuses to do so. It seems that, while MUP can root out the production of ultra cheap high strength drinks, it may not suffice to target hidden binge drinkers who are less severely affected by a price change. Some argue that the focus should be on education rather than price; this means providing information on bottles, in advertising, and developing more low alcohol by volume drinks for the off-trade market. The Portman Group, the social responsibility body for alcohol producers in the UK, operates a strict code of practice. The code highlights how drinks producers can, through their various marketing channels, help raise the profile of and promote their own commitment to responsible drinking. Those against MUP argue that not only is this system more adept at remedying the culture of alcohol misuse, it also enables the industry to keep control of itself.
If MUP goes ahead, it could be considered one of the most significant government interventions to public health since Labour’s introduction of the smoking ban. There are good grounds for tackling alcohol misuse. Hard drink can have potentially devastating effects on families and societies. If MUP prevents people from buying alcohol so cheaply and so readily, then it may well encourage people to drink more responsibly; even those groups who only occasionally have a “big night out” (or “in”!). Those who choose to drink to excess clearly would notice a positive difference to their health if forced to cut back due to cost. However, whether or not consumers will be affected by MUP so as to make such a choice is critical, remains to be seen. This is the difference between interpreting it as a genuine health strategy or just another tax. We will watch with interest to see what develops in Scotland. If the policy does work, will it simply encourage cross border shopping - with Newcastle becoming the new “Calais”?