The Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) have updated its factsheet on alcohol pricing as health groups seek to continue highlighting the importance of price in addressing alcohol harms.
Chapters covered in the report include:
Pricing, policy and the future of MUP?
Of central important to pricing debates is the relationship between price and consumption. Price, or more precisely affordability, influences the level of population consumption as has been shown by a wide literature. In the UK, attention has been on rising affordability and consumption during the second half of the 20th century, followed by the more recent decline since 2004. Rises in consumption over the last two years have indicated a possible return to an upward trend, whilst the price and sales gap between off-trade and on-trade prices has continued to widen. As such, attempts to see Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) have been central to public health policy calls in England, while Scotland's passing of MUP legislation in 2012 has yet to overcome industry-led challenges. A final verdict is expected this year.
Undoubtedly there are many complexities, with debates particularly focused on how pricing changes affect drinkers of different incomes and consumption levels. Whilst the well cited Sheffield Alcohol Research Group's (SARG) various modelling has undoubtedly applied advanced and detailed methodologies, predicting the exact impacts is never possible. Indeed the factsheet acknowledges that 'lower alcohol consumption generally reduces health risks' and so there is 'strong reason to expect that higher alcohol prices should improve health outcomes.' Indeed the recent PHE evidence review found strong favour for pricing as a key desired policy, albeit complicated by issues such as the alcohol harm paradox and complexities in identifying longer term health impacts of harmful drinking.
Secondary to MUP, public health opportunities for taxation policy arise with each budget, though of course also facing strong opposing calls from some industry groups. Over the last decade duty changes have arguably gone both ways, with positive public health impacts reportedly seen as a result of the 2008-2014 duty escalator, but opponents subsequently seeing its end and cuts on certain drinks. This year's budget 'froze' duty which would rise with inflation, although a tax consultation aimed mainly at 'white ciders' - typically one of the cheapest drinks per unit - is currently underway.
Pricing debates as such are going nowhere, but the policy decisions are hard to call. The former coalition Government infamously u-turned on its 2012 MUP pledge, largely thwarted by the current Prime Minister as then Home Secretary. It was insisted MUP though was not being 'ruled out', rather than waiting for more conclusive evidence. Waiting to see what happens in Scotland arguably makes for sensible politics, albeit health groups argue that dealying MUP comes at the expense of lives. Wales and Ireland are also pursuing MUP, and with Brexit in the mix, the future of alcohol pricing policy is likely to remain uncertain.