by Sally Bercow
This week, the government unveiled plans to introduce a minimum price for alcohol for the first time. Admittedly, the minimum price they’ve set (duty plus VAT) is way too low to have any real impact – either on the price of drinks or on alcohol abuse – but it’s a start.
The new rules do at least establish the principle of minimum alcohol pricing and, with a bit of luck, the government might be persuaded to get tougher over time and steadily up the minimum price per unit until it reaches 50p (it works out at 21p per unit of beer, 28p per unit of spirits at the moment) – which is the level recommended by a vast array of health professionals. Don’t hold your breath though: the Tories aren’t exactly known for standing up to big business – and big businesses the supermarkets and the UK drinks industry sure are.
Politicians know that something has to be done, though. Easy access to cheap booze is killing us as never before. The number of people reporting consumption of harmful levels of alcohol is increasing; around a third of men and a fifth of women report drinking more than the weekly recommendations. Society bears the burden of alcohol misuse – the antisocial behaviour, drunk drivers and domestic violence that ensue. Alcohol accounted for five per cent of all deaths in 2005 and its impact costs the NHS around £3 billion a year. Drink wreaks misery and havoc on families and communities. There can be no doubt that action is long overdue.
Unfortunately, the government’s new minimum price is so low it’s all but useless. Supermarkets will still be able to pull in the punters by selling drinks dirt cheap (as there’s no legal obligation to cover other costs, such as production, they can still use alcohol as a loss-leader). You’ll be able to pick up a can of weak lager for 38p or a can of cider for around 20p – positively a bargain compared with a can of Coke (60p). A bottle of wine could still pass through the checkout for just over £2, or a bottle of spirits for about £8. As the campaign for real ale observed: “pubs will continue to close as they are undercut by supermarkets selling cans of beer at pocket-money prices”.
What is really needed are measures that go further – first and foremost a meaningful minimum price per unit. Because, as over 100 academic studies have shown, the most effective way to tackle irresponsible drinking is to make alcohol less affordable; to push up the cost of the cheapest drinks (because, for obvious reasons, it’s the cheapest drinks that hardcore drinkers favour). This would save thousands of lives (around 3,000 per year), dramatically reduce hospital admissions (by 98,000 per year) and hugely improve our health as a nation. Minimum pricing is a practical approach that can help to kickstart a fundamental cultural change.
“Aaaah, but a minimum price penalises us”, cry the moderate drinkers. “Ouch”, add those who struggle to make ends meet as it is. However, neither group need fret. A minimum price of 50p per unit won’t raise the price of all drinks. Rather, it would target the cheap supermarket ciders, lagers and low-grade spirits favoured by problem and underage drinkers (the price of a bottle of vodka would rise to just over £13, a standard bottle of wine would cost £4.50 and a typical pint of beer would be on sale for £1 minimum).
Alcohol would remain affordable for moderate drinkers; indeed, they would hardly notice a difference (their drinks bill would increase by just £12 a year, whereas someone drinking at harmful levels would pay £163 a year more, according to researchers at Sheffield University). Pubs would also benefit because, while their prices would be largely unaffected, less cheap alcohol would be drunk at home (most pubs already price drinks at well over 50p per unit).
It will be illuminating to see what position Labour will take. We have a proud record on public health and haven’t shied away from taking radical action – most notably, introducing the groundbreaking smoking ban. Nonetheless, when the Scottish government tried (unsuccessfully) last year to introduce minimum alcohol pricing legislation, it was disappointing to see Labour opposing it and promulgating the myth that it was a tax on the moderate-drinking poor. (It being an SNP policy presumably didn’t endear it to Labour MSPs either).
The reality is that advocating a meaningful minimum price is essential in tackling our alcohol culture and improving the nation’s health and quality of life. Labour should be bold enough to advocate it. It is time to reclaim our place at the vanguard of public health.
Sally Bercow is a Labour activist and freelance writer and broadcaster.