The rumours were true; the Government's Alcohol Strategy has confirmed minimum pricing is to be brought in for England and Wales. Although the unit price is still to be set, in a press release the Prime Minister said "if it is 40p that could mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year and 9,000 fewer alcohol related deaths over the next decade."
- a minimum unit price for alcohol;
- banning the sale of multi-buy discount deals;
- zero tolerance of drunken behaviour in A&E departments;
- a late night levy to get pubs and clubs helping to pay for policing; and
- improved powers to stop serving alcohol to drunks.
The strategy, today released by the Home Office, sets itself out as a plan to reduce binge-drinking in a bid to drive down crime and tackle health issues. It includes a continued support for effective health measures such as brief interventions, alcohol treatment and hospital Alcohol Liason Nurses.
The decision to introduce a minimum unit price means that alcohol will not be allowed to be sold below a fixed price per unit - a policy advocated by health groups and Alcohol Concern for a number of years. As the release states, it "will put an end to cheap white ciders, spirits and super-strength lagers". It is expected to go out for consultation, with a possible introduction by 2014.
In the foreward to the strategy, the Prime Minister says:
“When beer is cheaper than water, it’s just too easy for people to get drunk on cheap alcohol at home before they even set foot in the pub.
“[Minimum pricing] isn’t about stopping responsible drinking, adding burdens on business or some new kind of stealth tax - it's about fast immediate action where universal change is needed.
“And let’s be clear. This will not hurt pubs. A pint is two units. If the minimum price is 40p a unit, it won’t affect the price of a pint. In fact, pubs may benefit by making the cheap alternatives in supermarkets more expensive.
“Of course, I know this won’t be universally popular. But the responsibility of being in government isn’t always about doing the popular thing. It's about doing the right thing.
Minimum pricing has always seemed broadly unpopular with the public, often of the view it would "punish the responsible majority" - a view emphasised by sections of the alcohol industry. The past Government shied away from minimum pricing despite calls from its CMO and Health Select Committee. But overruling the views of the Health Secretary, David Cameron has repeatedly expressed his desire to act on cheap alcohol, including the heavy discounting or "loss-leading" commonly seen in supermarkets.
Eric Appleby, Chief Executive of Alcohol Concern, described it as "a victory for common sense" and that "all the research shows there is a link between price and consumption and we know that lives can be saved if a minimum price is introduced.” Alcohol Concern however highlighted the need for significant investment in alcohol treatment and interventions, starting that "current health spending priorities really need to be rebalanced if these excellent objectives are to be translated into real progress on the ground."
Chris Sorek, Chief Executive of the industry funded alcohol awareness charity Drinkaware, expressed concern that "the strategy does not include measures to tackle the worrying trend of Britain’s hidden binge drinkers. Recent ONS statistics confirm Drinkaware’s evidence that 25-44 year old working professionals are drinking more heavily and more regularly than young adults." See the full Drinkaware press release and a Morning Advertiser round up of industry reaction.
To support the strategy, minimum pricing infographics have been produced to demonstrate the likely impact of a 40 pence minimum price. A series of 'myth busting facts' were also outlined. A series of Guardian reports can be found here, one describing the move as "the biggest public health intervention since the Labour government's smoking ban", and "follows months of Whitehall infighting over the legality, effectiveness and politics of imposing a minimum price". See also reports from the Daily Mail and The Telegraph.
Minimum pricing has been at the forefront of the national alcohol policy debate, particularly since the release of research from the University of Sheffield modelling the likely benefits of introducing various minimum unit prices. However opponents of minimum pricing, particularly sections of the alcohol industry and retailers, have argued minimum pricing is a blunt measure and could contravene EU legislation. Scotland is currently introducing a minimum price, whilst the IFS advise lobbying for EU law changes to allow tax restructuring to achieve a minimum pricing effect.