'Hundreds of lives lost' over failure to bring in minimum alcohol pricing, says study

Targeting below-cost drinks is 50 times less effective, say researchers

Hundreds of alcohol-related deaths could already have been prevented if the Government had introduced minimum unit pricing last year, according to a study published on Wednesday.

In contrast, the decision by ministers to instead target “below-cost” alcoholic drinks will save just 14 lives a year and is 50 times less effective at protecting public health than the rejected proposals for minimum pricing, the research found.

The Government introduced a ban on the sale of below-cost alcohol in England and Wales in April, targeting ultra-cheap drinks sold for less than the amount of tax payable on them with the aim of reducing the burden of alcohol-related illness and crime on the state.

The move followed the scrapping of plans to introduce a minimum price of between 40p and 50p per alcoholic unit, which ministers argued would unfairly penalise responsible drinkers. At the time, critics said the Government had “caved in to lobbying from big business”.

Now researchers at the University of Sheffield, who compared the public health impacts of both approaches, have concluded that minimum pricing would have “an approximately 40-50 times greater effect” on alcohol consumption than the targeting of below cost drinks.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, suggests that the Government’s ban will only prevent 14 deaths and 500 hospital admissions in England each year. A 45p minimum unit price would save 624 deaths and 23,700 admissions annually, it adds.

The researchers also pointed out that targeting below cost drinks would have a minimal impact on the alcohol market, increasing the price of just 0.7 per cent of drinks sold in England. By comparison, a 45p minimum unit price would increase the price of 23 per cent.

The amount of alcohol consumed by “harmful drinkers” – defined as more than 50 units per week for men or 35 for women – would also barely be affected by the Government’s ban, they added. In the space of a year, this group would only drink three units less than they would have previously – compared to 137 units less under a 45p minimum unit price.

The researchers compared the effects of the two policies on public health using a mathematical model alongside General Lifestyle Survey data from the ONS to estimate changes in alcohol consumption, spending, and related harm among adults in England.

Alcohol charities last night called on the Government to change course and adopt minimum pricing. Jackie Ballard, chief executive at Alcohol Concern, said: “The research published today is further proof that minimum unit pricing is an evidence-based policy that will save lives and cut crime, and we need the Government to act quickly to introduce it.

“We know that minimum unit pricing will reduce alcohol-related harm, cut crime and assault, ease the burden on our hospitals and protect the young and vulnerable. This is why doctors, nurses, ambulance services and police up and down the country want to see it introduced.”

Simon Antrobus, the chief executive of Addaction, added: “If further evidence were needed that the Government was wrong to ditch minimum unit pricing, this is surely it. It’s a policy that would have a significant benefit to public health, saving millions for the NHS and helping to protect our most vulnerable drinkers.”

But a Department of Health spokeswoman said: “Alcohol-fuelled harm costs society £21 billion a year and we are determined to reduce this burden to taxpayers. We are taking action to tackle cheap and harmful alcohol such as banning the lowest priced drinks.

“We are working with industry to promote responsible drinking, and are already making headway by removing a billion units from the market over three years.”

In Scotland, a 50p minimum unit price for alcohol has already been agreed by MSPs – but the law cannot be implemented until legal proceedings brought by the Scottish Whisky Association are completed. In Northern Ireland the issue is currently under review.

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat Home Office Minister, said: “Minimum unit alcohol pricing remains on the table. We can't sensibly take it forward until the outcome of the Scottish court case. But I'm personally sympathetic to the idea.”

Sarah Wollaston MP, the Conservative chair of the Health Select Committee, said: "I have long supported a minimum unit price for alcohol as the most effective way to reduce the harm to the heaviest drinkers, their families and communities. Minimum pricing in Canada has been associated with significant reductions in alcohol related harm and, once the European Court has reached a verdict, if that gives a go ahead for Scotland, I hope the Government will reconsider the position south of the border. Of course minimum pricing cannot work in isolation but whilst alcohol remains so cheap, price will undermine all other efforts to help those who are losing control of their drinking."

Countries with minimum pricing

Canada

The first country in the world to introduce the policy, it has been established in some areas for 40 years. Implementation of the rules varies across Canada’s ten provinces: in Manitoba it affects only the sale of high-strength beers, while in Saskatchewan it applies to every alcoholic drink sold.

Russia

In 2010, a minimum pricing scheme was brought in for all sales of strong spirits, including vodka, the country’s national drink. Part of the then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s plan to tackle alcoholism, prices increased again this year.

Uzbekistan

The country introduced minimum pricing on all alcoholic beverages except beer in 2010, and has since increased the cost at regular intervals.

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