Cheap alcohol: the price we pay and the road to Minimum Unit Pricing!

It has been five years since alcohol partners from across the UK carried out their last comprehensive price survey. A lot has happened in that time. The Coalition Government committed to introduce a minimum unit price (MUP) to tackle the harm caused by the cheapest alcohol. Then, with encouragement from sections of the alcohol industry, they decided to postpone its introduction until the outcome of a legal challenge to minimum unit pricing in Scotland had been resolved. The alcohol duty escalator – which increased duty by 2% above inflation – was scrapped. Wider duty rates were cut. And alcohol harm continued to rise.

Four member organisations of the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) – the Institute of Alcohol Studies; Alcohol Focus Scotland; Balance, the North East Alcohol Office; and Healthier Futures – decided to check how those changes had affected the price of alcohol that is available in communities across England and Scotland.

As part of the survey, the partners visited a range of off-sales premises looking for the nation’s cheapest booze. Almost 500 products were examined and the conclusion is clear – alcohol continues to be sold at pocket money prices in supermarkets and off-licences across the UK.

Chairman of the AHA and former president of the Royal College of Physicians, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, said:

“In spite of a government commitment to tackle cheap, high-strength alcohol, these products are still available at pocket money prices. Harmful drinkers and children are still choosing the cheapest products – predominantly white cider and cheap vodka.

We need to make excessively cheap alcohol less affordable through the tax system, including an increase in cider duty. It’s not right that high strength white cider is taxed at a third of the rate for strong beer. 

In addition, we need minimum unit pricing. This would target the cheap, high strength products drunk by harmful drinkers whilst barely affecting moderate drinkers, and it would leave pub prices untouched.”

Each year, there are almost 23,000 deaths and more than 1 million hospital admissions related to alcohol in England.

More than two-thirds of alcohol sold in the UK is purchased in supermarkets and off-licences.

Headline Findings

  • Alcohol continues to be sold at pocket money prices, with white cider dominating the market for cheap, high-strength drinks.
  • High-strength white cider products, which are predominantly drunk by dependent and underage drinkers, are sold for as little as 16p per unit of alcohol.
  • For the cost of a standard off-peak cinema ticket you can buy seven and a half litres of 7.5% ABV white cider, containing as much alcohol as 53 shots of vodka.
  • Recent cuts in alcohol taxes allow shops and supermarkets to sell alcohol at pocket money prices but have done little to benefit pubs and their customers.
  • High-strength white cider is taxed at the lowest rate of all alcohol products. A can of 7.5% ABV white cider attracts less than one-third of the duty on a can of beer that is the same strength.

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Recommendations

The Government needs to:

  1. Increase duty on high-strength cider
  2. Reinstate the alcohol duty escalator
  3. Upon leaving the EU, tax all alcoholic drinks categories in proportion to strength
  4. Implement a minimum unit price for all alcoholic drinks.

Minimum unit pricing and tax – dispelling the myths

A minimum unit price would only target the highest strength drinks that cause the most harm. There are many myths surrounding minimum unit pricing, which the alcohol industry uses to dissuade people from supporting it. We have included here just a few of those myths and our responses.

Myth: An MUP would affect moderate drinkers too.
Moderate drinkers would experience very little impact from minimum unit pricing, which makes it one of the most effective measures, as it only targets the most harmful drinks of the kind deliberately sought out in this survey. The price of a pint of beer in a pub, for example, would not be affected by minimum unit pricing.
Myth: Taxation would be more effective than an MUP.
Recent research from the University of Sheffield found that, to achieve the same level of impact as an MUP of 50p, a 28% increase in all alcohol duty would be needed, which is outside the realms of possibility when it comes to what the Government will do. Everyone would be affected by these measures, whereas minimum unit pricing only targets the cheapest, strongest drinks.
Myth: Tax and minimum unit pricing cannot be used together.
Increasing duty and introducing an MUP are often presented as alternative solutions, when they can in fact be used to complement each other. Minimum unit pricing is targeted at the cheapest alcohol that is consumed by the most harmful drinkers but there are limits to its impact on wider population alcohol consumption and health, which increases to duty overall would help to tackle.

Tax rises and tougher rules on alcohol promotions work well,
but they will always work better when combined with minimum unit pricing.

Read the full report here.

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