A doctor friend described to me the ‘minimum pricing of alcohol policy’ as ‘one of the few genuinely good public health ideas of recent years’. As with most policies that are good for public health but bad for big business it was quietly dropped. The coalition government instead opted to bring in a ban on ‘below cost’ selling of alcohol.
A study published in the BMJ has, for anyone that had any doubt, put to rest any suggestion that the banning of selling below cost alcohol has any serious public health benefit and, significantly, has clearly restated the case for the introduction of minimum pricing of alcohol (as our progressive neighbours in Scotland have done – awaiting a legal challenge from the Scotch Whisky Association).
The BMJ study concludes with an unequivocal statement:
“The ban on below cost selling, implemented in the England in May 2014, is estimated to have small effects on consumption and health harm. The previously announced policy of a minimum unit price, if set at expected levels between 40p and 50p per unit, is estimated to have an approximately 40-50 times greater effect.”
The implemented policy of banning the selling of below cost alcohol was found to reduce harmful drinkers’ mean annual consumption by just 0.08%, around 3 units per year. Put another way that is just over one pint, per year, drunk less by harmful consumers of alcohol.
In contrast, the study found that a minimum pricing of alcohol set at around 45p per unit would reduce harmful drinker’s consumption of alcohol by 137 units per year. In terms of pints that is approximately 60 pints less a year.
We have known for a while now that the minimum pricing of alcohol disproportionately impacts on those of us who consume the most alcohol (in the study a harmful drinker was defined as the 5.3% of the population over 16 who on average consumer 58 units per week for females, 80 units for males).
According to the study 2.2 million of us Brits are harmful drinkers (17.3% – 7.2 million are ‘hazardous’ and 61.5% – 22.5 million – are ‘moderate’).
The study found that 30.5% of harmful drinker’s alcohol would be effected by a minimum price of 45p per unit while just 19.5% and 12.5% respectively for hazardous and moderate drinker’s alcohol would be effected.
But this policy analysis isn’t just about reducing the amount people drink for an abstract notion of it being ‘better for our health’. The study connects it closely to alcohol related deaths stating:
“Below cost selling would save an estimated 14 deaths and 500 admissions to hospital annually, compared with 624 deaths and 23 700 admissions for a 45p minimum unit price”
In short and written another way, the coalition’s decision to delay the introduction of a minimum price of alcohol is costing Brits 610 needless deaths a year and a whopping 23,200 hospital admissions.
Something worth bearing in mind next time you go into an overworked hospital.