The Weekly Scientist on Alcohol Pricing

Alcohol has been far too cheap for far too long, but at last, there’s more than just talk of a minimum selling price: there is action. Scotland is leading the way with what the alcohol industry considers to be a high-wire act, and potentially illegal. The Coalition Government is following suit, though at a more leisured pace. After all, when it comes to a policy overhaul, it’s all about timing. The current Government doesn’t want to be seen as rushing into things, which could upset those all-too-important shareholders that are keeping the economy from flat-lining. Unfortunately, the piece of revolutionary-yet-no-so-revolutionary legislation that was drawn up still fails to keep anyone happy.

Alcohol consumption, unlike smoking, isn’t something policy makers can tackle head-on. When it comes to its biological effects, the science gets a little bit too complicated. Medical experts universally accept the fact that overindulgent drinking behaviours can bring about a myriad of health issues later on in life. Apart from strokes, hypertension, liver and pancreatic disease, the average binge drinker faces a likely death by mouth, bowl or breast cancer. And since alcohol also relieves its abusers off crucial judgement skills, there are the countless accidents that busy the hallways of the A&E every weekend, costing the NHS £2.7 billion per annum. Overall, 40, 000 Britons are dying every year because they don’t know when to stop.

So, alcohol causes a lot of trouble for everyone; so far, so good.

Until one takes a closer look at the relationship between heart disease and the level of alcohol consumption, that is. Because as it turns out, alcohol can actually do some good, if drunken sensibly. In fact, drinking red wine in moderation has been linked to a lowered risk of heart disease for quite some time. Now, scientists are trying to find out whether all alcoholic beverages have this effect.

A recent scientific review in the British Medical Journal points to this very likelihood. Though still acknowledging the adverse effects of over-drinking, the author concludes that moderate drinking of about 12.5 g alcohol per day for women and 25 g alcohol per day for men is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease. In a second review, the same author suggests that alcohol is actually the cause of this decreased risk and ponders on the potential clinical implications that this could have. Quite simply put, public health messages could soon start encouraging the practice of “therapeutic drinking”, which, to the ears of any alcoholic, would be sweet music.

Either way, these findings will do little to stop people advocating a hike in alcohol prices. Cheap alcohol is still one irrefutable cause of alcoholism in modern day Britain, and the little health benefits that one drink might have can certainly not outweigh the problems caused by ten other drinks that follow.

The campaign for higher prices is also backed by a study that was published in The Lancet last year. Conducted by the University of Sheffield, this study found that raising alcohol prices to £0.45 per unit would reduce overall consumption by 4.5% and save about 2000 lives. Banning drink discounts didn’t have as profound an effect. With health groups such as Alcohol Concern and the British Liver Trust driving a hard bargain against the lobbying power of industrial giants, studies like that (alongside historical data showing that both the USA and the UK respond positively to legal restrictions on alcohol consumption) could make all the difference.

This wasn’t the case across these last few months, however, when the Government announced its plans for dealing with excessive drinking by putting a floor on alcohol prices. On average, by banning the sale of alcohol below its tax (duty and VAT), the price is set to linger at about 20p per unit for beer and wine, and half as much for cider. This would mean a reasonably strong bottle of wine could be sold at just £2 and a bottle of spirits for just £8 — a marked reduction in current retail prices that could achieve the exact opposite of what was intended.

The price being advocated by the British Medical Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers is 50p per unit. This would, according to the calculations by the University of Sheffield, lead to a 6.9% decline in alcohol consumption and save 2930 lives per year.

The nature of the beast is cheap alcohol being sold in major supermarkets as “loss leaders”, a common marketing ploy aiming to stimulate consumer spending with bargain prices; as long as these companies continue to feed off society’s unhealthy alcohol addiction, binge drinking will continue to terrorise British town centres. And with an economy that needs recovering, in the eyes of many medical experts, the Government looks to be putting profit ahead of the health of its people.

Eric John


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