Special report on how a minimum price for alcohol could save the country billions of pounds and millions of lives.
The recent Government-launched mobile phone application to track a person’s alcohol intake has once again highlighted concerns over the UK’s relationship with excessive alcohol consumption.
In a report published in September, the British Medical Association noted that “the UK is among the heaviest alcohol consuming countries in Europe”.
Such a stark statement was a prelude to worrying research commissioned by Alcohol Concern and undertaken by Professor Martin Plant of the Alcohol and Research Unit at the University of the West of England.
In the publication, it discovered that:
• Across Britain, 1.1 million adults are alcohol dependant;
• The estimated annual cost to the NHS of alcohol misuse, based on 2006-2007 prices is in the region of £2.7 billion;
• Government figures in 2008 that estimated the total cost of harm from alcohol was between £17.7 and £25.1 billion a year;
• At present almost 9,000 deaths a year are related to alcohol;
• According to Professor Plant’s research however, current trends suggest that 90,800 people will die as a result of alcohol-related causes over the next ten years.
Figures from the North West Public Health Observatory further warn that total hospital admissions as a result of alcohol related reasons, in England alone, could top one million a year in two years’ time.
For a sense of how Accident and Emergency Departments are being placed under substantial pressure from alcohol related admissions, see a video produced by the BBC’s “Switch”, in which they follow a Friday night shift at Leeds General Infirmary’s Accident and Emergency Department.
Could a minimum alcohol price tackle what Public Health Minister Gillian Merron has admitted is the UK’s “unacceptable” link between alcohol and hospital admissions, crime, ill health and death?
In his most recent annual report on the state of the public’s health, England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, came out strongly in favour of a minimum price for alcohol. He went on to conclude (page 22):
“Quite simply, England is drinking far too much. England has an alcohol problem. Alcohol is harming society. Alcohol is not simply a problem for the minority who are dependent on it – it is a problem for everyone.”
In a similar vein, the British Medical Association has supported calls for a minimum price. The head of its science and ethics division, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, warned the government that it “must get away from this cosy relationship with the [alcohol] industry”.
Making the economic case for a minimum price, Dr John Foster of Greenwich University’s School of Health and Social Care has said:
“In essence, unlike cigarettes, alcohol consumption has an elastic demand which means the cheaper it is, the more will be consumed.
“Economic modeling indicates young people including underage drinkers and heavy drinkers would drink less if it cost more. Minimal effective price increases on average would cost the ‘sensible drinker’ about £10 more per year, which is the price of a round of drinks.
“And yes, I do drink myself.”
In its manifesto for the 2007 elections to Holyrood, the SNP made clear is intentions to address concerns around the “availability and affordability of alcohol”. The recently published Alcohol etc. (Scotland) Bill sets out plans to ban those holding a licence to sell alcohol below a certain price.
However, despite the overwhelming support of the medical profession, the measures stand little chance of becoming law as a result of concerted opposition from Labour, Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
In announcing his party’s opposition to the SNP proposals, Labour Leader Iain Gray commented:
“We certainly accept that Scotland has a very serious problem with alcohol, but the problem is that the proposal for minimum unit pricing that the SNP have brought forward is hugely flawed.
“We are not convinced it would work. For a year now we have been trying to get answers to some key questions about the SNP proposal and those have not been forthcoming.”
Expressing disappointment at such opposition, Nicola Sturgeon has reacted:
“The issue is – or should be – above party politics, just as the smoking ban was. The priority is improving the public health of Scotland – and minimum pricing is a practical and evidence-led approach which tackles the problem of alcohol misuse by targeting cheap, high-strength beers and ciders.”
Whilst Scottish Labour has come out opposing plans for a minimum price for alcohol, such a scheme has attracted political support in Wales.
“It’s seriously of concern to me that a person can consume more than their desired daily intake of alcohol for less than £1.
“We do need to be looking at the pricing structure, which at times does encourage people to drink the strongest alcohol with the most deleterious effect.
“So we would like minimum pricing, a taxation structure related to the alcohol strength. We will have the experience of Scotland to work from, so we won’t have to reinvent the wheel, possibly, in this regard.”
His calls have been echoed by Labour’s new leader in Wales, Carwyn Jones, who in his leadership manifesto made clear his desire to see action on alcohol pricing.
Responding to the Chief Medical Officer’s recommendations for a minimum alcohol price, Gordon Brown made clear his opposition to plans for fear of placing burdens on moderate drinkers. Similarly, Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has indicated that the Conservatives would not introduce a minimum pricing regime, opting instead for a policy designed to address people’s attitudes to alcohol.
It is clear that the overwhelming majority of the medical profession see minimum pricing as an important part of strategies to combat the UK’s problematic relationship with alcohol. However, the responses from Government and Opposition have been lukewarm at best.
In 2006, Parliament had the courage to support a ban on smoking in public places, despite warnings from John Reid that such a policy would cause resentment amongst those poorer sections of society who viewed smoking as one of the “very few pleasures in life”. If it could be done now, then why not allow for a free vote in Parliament on alcohol pricing?
The recent sacking of Professor David Nutt as the Government’s chief scientific adviser on drugs raised a number of questions concerning Labour’s commitment to evidence based policy.
A failure to take seriously and allow Parliament to vote on proposals for minimum pricing would fly in the face of those eminent medical professionals who now see a minimum price on alcohol as the new ban on smoking in public places.
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